How do social worker choices affect youth aging out of care?
This question came from Gaynor H. via our latest website survey: “How do choices made by social workers affect youth aging out of care and their risk of experiencing homelessness; and what influences support for programs like support and financial agreements (SFAs)?”
One Raising the Roof study from 2009 found that 43% of participants experiencing homelessness had been in foster care; while a recent Vancouver study found that involvement in the child welfare system “independently predicted incomplete high school, duration of homelessness, discontinuous work history, less severe types of mental illness, multiple mental disorders, early initiation of drug and/or alcohol use, and daily drug use.”
Foster care, however, doesn’t always automatically lead to homelessness. Another Canadian study discovered that youth with more positive experiences and who moved around less (stayed with families longer) were less likely to become homeless, and that having at least one significant relationship was key to their wellbeing.
Sometimes, a very important relationship for youth is with their social worker, who provides counselling and connections to other services. Social workers are responsible for supporting youth while they transition to adulthood and prepare for independence, so their work with youth is incredibly important. Being in such a powerful position means that social workers can have enormous impacts on youth. While I couldn't find any precise studies measuring social worker choices and youth outcomes, existing literature gives us an idea of just how influential social workers can be in two primary ways:
I mentioned above that youth often just need one important positive relationship with a person to feel loved and supported. In a study led by the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria with youth who had previously been in care:
25% of participants named their former foster parent(s) or their former social worker as someone to whom they could turn for either emotional or practical support; this was essentially equivalent to the percentage of youth who named their parent(s) as a source of support.
Furthermore, 36% of the participants said that their former social worker was still an active part of their life, calling up to “check up on them and provide emotional support when needed.” Other youth reported feeling glad and relieved to leave care so that they would no longer feel like they’re under surveillance or being judged. But for youth who don’t have strong social bonds elsewhere, a positive relationship with their social worker can be a very meaningful and important one.
Similarly, social workers’ biases and judgments can work against the development of a positive relationship. Writing about the experiences of young mothers, the study authors note: “Rutman et al (2002) have examined how social workers’ values and biases stigmatize young mothers and help to perpetuate the belief that 'the cycle' of youth in care who have children who end up in care is inevitable.” Some participants felt judged in this way and did not feel like they were given proper supports from their social workers. A critically reflexive practice - questioning how we know what we know - is crucial for social workers to recognize and, if necessary, change how they interact with and think of the youth they work with.
Social worker knowledge
In addition to having a good relationship with youth, how much social workers know about existing services is paramount in ensuring that youth access the services most appropriate for them. In the child welfare system, social workers have flexibility in the living arrangements they offer to youth who are in transition and can include independent living, room and board with former foster parents, reunification, transitional housing, or group homes. They must work closely with youth to determine what would work best for them and what other supports may be needed – like employment or skills training, financial support with rent, etc.
Sometimes, social workers are not aware of all the resources available to youth who are in transition. These services are generally provided by each province and territory and can vary greatly. In Ontario, for example, there is a variety of financial and educational supports for youth, but most are only available if youth are pursuing post-secondary education or job training. (The situation is similar in British Columbia.)
The University of Victoria study asked participants if they knew about the YEAF, a series of bursaries available to youth formerly in care, and 50% did not. The study authors also noted: “Participants’ and other key informants’ comments indicated that not all social workers or youth-serving service providers knew about this potential financial resource for youth in/from care.” Anywhere, a lack of service and program knowledge can result in inappropriate referrals or youth missing out on what is available to them.
Support and financial agreements (SFAs)
Gaynor’s question about what influences support for SFAs is also good, because it asks us to think about why our system is structured the way it is. My short answer would be funding - our governments tend to support projects that in the short term, seem to cost less.
As it stands in most provinces and territories, once someone reaches 18 or 19, they are considered independent and will no longer receive support from the government. This also often means moving out of their foster family’s home, sometimes before they’re ready, and having limited contact. (The Vancouver Sun published a fantastic six-part series on what happens to youth as they “age out,” and I highly recommend reading it.) In many cases, this transition feels abrupt and can be very traumatic – leading to many researchers to advocate for extending foster care services to age 25.
Many government agencies offer SFAs, which provide supports (emotional and financial) to youth up to ages of 21 or 22. The rationale for them is that they are flexible enough that youth who don’t need continued support don’t get it, but those who do can apply and continue on. Social workers tend to support these agreements because they are better than youth having no support at all, but I think many acknowledge that offering services in such a fragmented way isn’t always helpful.
In Coming of Age, Stephen Gaetz recommends that Canada take a more strategic approach to youth homelessness, which would also benefit the child welfare system. He also gave a number of recommendations in this story about youth aging out of care from The Tyee:
“• Raise the exiting age of 18 or 19 in most provinces and territories when foster care ends, to at least age 24 or graduation from their first post-secondary program;
• Plan an exit strategy and start planning early;
• Give kids a say in the design of services and the types of services provided to them;
• Encourage high school graduation and fund the first post-secondary program;
• Fund community-based youth supports instead of province-wide services run by bureaucrats;
• Ensure youth have at least one adult in their life, family or not, whom they can rely on;
• If they leave care early, let them come back whenever they need to.”
Some decision-makers and lobbyists would likely see extending care as a costly investment, but many researchers have estimated that cost of extending care to an older age is actually less than what we spend on SFAs and other piecemeal supports.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
Emma Woolley is an undergraduate student in York University's Social Work program, with a background in publishing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing and homelessness, progressive approaches and care in mental health, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is a widely published freelance writer, with a large portion of her work focusing on gender issues within digital culture and technology.
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