by Meredith Martin Thursday December 20, 2012

In November 2011, I attended the Youth Leaving Care Hearings at Queen’s Park, hosted by the office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. It was an eye-opening, two-day event, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a journalist. The hearings were led by youth, and I spent most of my time listening to depositions from current and former Crown wards who told their stories of living in care. There were plenty of stories of personal triumph, like that of Shanna Allen, a former Crown ward who was, at the time of her interview below on The Agenda, in late November 2011, studying to be a teacher at the Laurier-Nipissing Concurrent Education Program.

But there were also young people at the hearings who talked about their own suffering, and the suffering of other youth who weren’t there to speak for themselves, either because they were in jail or because they had died much, much too young.

Thinking back to the hearings, what I remember most are the feelings of hopelessness expressed by youth at the prospect of leaving care. Some of the people we heard from had been bounced around from foster home to foster home, and although being an adult was appealing to them in theory, they also understood they were not prepared for life on their own. Many were not taught basic life skills, like how to grocery shop or budget money. Those who stayed in school were given both financial and social work support until they turned 21, but the graduation rate from high school for youth in care is only 44 per cent, which means that more than half of them are ejected from the system the day they turn 18, a bittersweet birthday gift to say the least.

After the hearings concluded, the youth made a list of recommendations in a report that was released this past spring and presented to the government. The key recommendation: "The Province of Ontario should recognize that the current system needs to fundamentally change to better prepare young people in care to succeed."

In response to this recommendation, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services created a working group to review the goals outlined in the report -- My REAL Life Book -- and, in the short term, to make recommendations that the ministry can fund from its current budget. 

Anna Ho is one of the new youth leads who is helping the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth shepherd this project through its next phase. I spoke with her last week to get an update on where things now stand, and you can watch our conversation below.

I also spoke to Shanna Allen to find out how she is, and to find out what she's been up to this past year. "It's going really well, though it was a tough semester," Allen said.

Allen is doing a triple-minor in psychology, health studies, and geography, as well as working 40 hours a week at a gym. Her job, she feels, may have impacted her grades. Allen turned 21 in May and has been living without any support from the government since then, so she needs to work full-time in order to support herself. I asked if she's still in touch with her foster parent and she said no. In fact, she isn't even seeing him this Christmas. I asked her how she plans to spend the holidays and she said she isn't sure. "I hadn't even thought of it until today. I'll probably spend it with friends. My friends are my family," Allen said. Allen does in fact have a brother, but he moved to Turkey this past spring, and a sister who lives in the U.S. 

Speaking with Allen after not having seen her in a year, I was reminded of what an incredible young woman she is. So positive in the face of such adversity; so cheerful on the phone even when she told me she'll likely be alone on Christmas morning. It's impossible not to admire her strength. "I never let it get to me," Allen said, and mostly I believe her.

Before our conversation ended, Allen told me about something she'll be doing in the new year that she's really looking forward to: she'll be going Kenya for three weeks in May, for a work placement through her school. She's one of 30 students accepted into the placement, and she'll help build a school, and do some teaching. "I have to fundraise for it. It cost $4,000. I'm going to ask people for money, it's going to be awkward," Allen said. I asked how other students are paying for the trip, and she said, "Oh, their families are paying," without even a hint of resentment in her voice. As much as you can keep yourself busy working 40 hours and week, while also spending 30 hours a week in classrooms, you can never really forget that you don't have a family.

Below is the follow-up program to Allen's interview that aired last year after the Youth Leaving Care Hearings: