From the very beginning Brückensteine Careleaver incorporated an international perspective on leaving care. On one hand it’s a very local topic for young people in care: their personal situation depends on local surroundings, like their carers or youth welfare office. At the same time, the challenges care leavers face seem to be very similar everywhere. In this conversation with Stephanie Thompson from the Canadian project “The Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks” (FBCYICN or just “the Fed”), we find out just how much we have in common with each other.
Lea: I met your colleagues Lorena and Jessy a few months ago and it was very enlightening to talk to them, because you’ve been around for so many years. So the idea for today is to learn more about your amazing work and share it with more people over here in Germany. Maybe you can tell us what you do and why you do it?
Stephanie: The Fed is youth driven, provincial, non-profit and our mission is to improve the lives of young people in and from government care in British Columbia. We work with youth between the ages of 14 and 24, who are in and also out of care already. When we talk about government care, we not only mean foster care but any young person who has access to a residence from the Ministry of Children and Family Development between the ages of 0 and 19. That includes group homes, mental health services, addiction facilities and custody centers. We also work with young people who have experienced homelessness.
Throughout the year we provide bursaries for educational skills development, host youth retreats, support youth with training and volunteer opportunities and distribute resources and information. In response to Covid – since we haven’t been able to host our youth retreats – we have created a program called Fed Connects. It’s a virtual space, where you can come together and we hold events like skill building workshops, cultural teachings, we have a weekly drop-in chat – so it’s really just a place to come together in a virtual way.
Lea: From your introduction and from what I’ve heard about you, you really take the “strength-based approach” very seriously. And I think you’ve done that more or less from the beginning 27 years ago. I guess right now it’s kind of established that it’s a good idea to do that – but what was it like in the beginning?
Stephanie: We started in 1993, quite a long time ago. At the time there weren’t really supports for youth after they left care. So, all these young people were out on their own at 19, often without skills, the safety net of a family or people that could provide support they needed to live independently. Lack of life skills was a huge problem. I think we’ve been strength-based the entire time because it’s been young people driving this initiative the entire time. It’s been their strength and their vision. They got together and said “how do we make the situation better for other youth?”. They created the Fed to address some of these unique barriers that young people from care experience. And we were one of the first non-government organisations that existed specifically to support young people in and from care. In more recent years we’ve been developing a language around being strength-based, we’ve been a lot more explicit about it.
Some of the specific barriers that young people leaving care experience – the situation has improved in recent years, but it’s still not totally perfect obviously, there is always work to be done – are budgeting, cooking or driving. Also accessing mental health services and post-secondary education is really challenging, basic housing and access to getting household goods to set up a home for the first time is difficult. A lot of young people with care experience also have disabilities, so they often face challenges navigating and accessing services.
Lea: I think we could copy this list, it’s literally the same problems or challenges we see over here! Is there something that is very specific to the British Columbia or Canada context?
Stephanie: I would probably say that there is a really significant representation of indigenous young people in care. That is probably not something that Germany would potentially have experience with necessarily. So, there is a legacy of colonisation and a legacy of residential schools in Canada that definitely has impacts on the number of indigenous young people in care. But recently there has been more of a push within the government to mandate that and try to actively make sure that indigenous children, when they’re taken into care, are able to stay in their communities and within their cultures. Sometimes it’s not possible, but in more recent years there’s been more focus about that.
Lea: There’s one thing I haven’t found in any other country so far which is maybe specific to Germany. I think we translate it with “cost raising” (Kostenheranziehung). Basically, if you’re in care and you have an own income – for instance from a student job or from a job training – you have to give up to 75 per cent of that income to your local youth welfare office to cover the costs you are causing…
Lea: Yes, no one believes that and it’s totally shocking on every level, I think. Your reaction indicates you don’t have that in Canada?
Stephanie (still laughs in disbelief): No! Up until they turn 19, they’re minors and so the government, the Ministry of Children and Family Development, is their legal guardian basically. They take on all the costs associated with caring for a young person. And then after they turn 19, they may or not also be eligible for further support from the ministry as an adult. So again, no, that doesn’t happen!
Lea: And is it difficult to get this further support after turning 19?
Stephanie: It depends – these supports are relatively needed things. It all comes down to the advocacy work by young people and their allies in the care community themselves. The government has created programs like the “Agreements with Young Adults” (AYA) program that provides financial supports to youth up to the age of 27, who are either going through secondary education or maybe accessing a life skills program or they might be in treatment for something.
But the eligibility is they have to have been in care for at least one year, I think. Eligibility is not universal and that’s something youth advocacy groups in BC are pushing for right now. The government has also come out with a parental tuition waiver program in 2017 and that’s for waived tuition for post-secondary education like college, university, trains. So far it’s covered tuition for around 1200 youths, so that’s pretty cool! And mental health services have done some good work in making more accessible and affordable mental health services for youth as well. There’s always more that can be done…
Lea: But at least it sounds like there’s some dynamic and something is happening! It’s not like it was in 1993 obviously, so your work shows results! Is there one key take-away from your work, from your experience, where you would say that’s something you should always focus on in this work?
Stephanie: I think two things! First of all, I think what’s super important – and what the youth have told us, that makes their experience with the Fed special – is that it feels like a family. They told us that they need to feel genuine connections and build relationships with their support people to really feel like they’re actually supported. It’s really important for the staff to build those genuine relationships with youth, but it’s just as important for youth to be able to connect with each other. And the experience of being in care – as I think we are learning – is that it’s quite unique and it’s kind of the same everywhere. I mean every young person experiencing care is different, but I think there is a common sort of understanding and shared experience of all young people in care. For us, one of the main goals from the beginning has always been to create a space to come together and to be able to support each other in those shared experiences. Because they don’t necessarily always have people in their day to day lives who understand what that means. Being able to build a community and build a family – I think that’s probably one of our biggest goals of our work and a huge part of our success.
And I think most importantly the young people themselves: we were created by youth, we’re currently driven by young people and so all of our work has come from their input. Whether that’s ideas, whether they volunteer their time, whether they take on staff positions or join the board of directors – any changes and improvements for youth, both within the Fed and in BC, have started with young people advocating for themselves and for the youth who would come after them. (sighs) I get emotional when I talk about it. They’re such an incredible group of young people!
Lea: I absolutely agree. I entered this field only one and a half years ago, but that was something that became clear very quickly. Thank you so much, Stephanie! It was great to speak with you. Do you have any further questions for us?
Stephanie: Just that I was really grateful to chat with you and it’s really great to see that so many different organisations and initiatives are coming together and that you’re pulling them all together. Because I think that holistic approach is really important and I don’t think we have enough of it in Canada. (laughs)