'I felt abandoned': aging out of social services removes financial, mental support for some

'I felt abandoned': aging out of social services removes financial, mental support for some

A month before her 18th birthday, Alisha Shannon's social worker contacted her to give her a heads up about a "big change" — she was aging out of the system.

"It wasn't even what she had really prepared me for," Shannon told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition. 

"I hadn't expected it to be that drastic."

Shannon said the difference was night and day once she aged out, saying it went from everything she needed being covered to nothing. 

Under section 10 of the Child and Family Services Act, costs for services to 16- and 17-year-old teens such as counselling, travel costs for counselling, medication are covered.

"My adult social worker pretty much looked at me and said 'you know, these are all things you need to do on your own,'" she recalled.

In the case of section 10, youths are put on short-term plans which are aimed at reconciling any differences which lead to their entry into the system or self-reliance. Support terms expire but can be renewed, if need be.

Strained relationship

She had been under the care of the Ministry of Social Services since she was 16. When she had entered the system, she was living in shelters and group homes through the Street Culture organization.

She received help from a social worker, who Shannon described as "awesome."

While other 16-year-olds were building relationships with "good people," or going to school, Shannon said she was kicked out of her home due to a strained relationship with her parents. 

"I was struggling," Shannon said.

"I wasn't doing as well as most youth would be if they were living at home." 

Shannon described mental health disorders which she says affect her ability to form strong interpersonal bonds. Eventually it got to a point where her parents could no longer handle her, she said.

"They had no other choice but to kick me out," she said, adding the relationship between them would only have further deteriorated if she had stayed. 

It was Shannon's mother who set her up with a social worker. She was then referred to Street Culture. 

'Zero' mental health help

At 18, Shannon aged out of child and youth services. In addition to no more financial support, Shannon said there was now zero mental health support. 

"That was on me to be able to get again," Shannon said. 

"You can call, you can do whatever you need to do — but if you're not a social worker, they don't take you very seriously."

Shannon said her name sat on waiting lists for months while she sought mental health services and financial assistance. Shannon said she was told there were "more than enough programs" for her to apply to.

She said it was never explained to her as a youth how she could apply for schooling help or other assistance.

"I was frustrated. I was depressed. I felt abandoned. I felt like I didn't know what I was doing with my life," she recalled.

Corey O'Soup, the Saskatchewan child and youth advocate, has called on the province to increase its age for the definition of a child from 16 to 18. He has also called for the age of provincial support to be raised to 24. 

Now working for Street Culture, Shannon said she has heard familiar stories from youth. She said some people she knew from her time in the system weren't able to get to where she is now.

"It took a lot of work on my behalf to get where I am now. Maybe, if we had that extra support...  You could see so many people falling into paths that they don't belong in — it leads to so many awful things."

Researcher says not aging out youth would save government money

Simon Fraser University researcher Marvin Shaffer said extending support for youth in social services saves money in the long run.

Many youth who are aged out of the system end up living in poverty, according to Shaffer, which is linked to higher medical expenditures for the government and a greater number of incidents with the criminal justice system.

In B.C., Shaffer said there are about 1,000 youth aging out of the system each year and recommends this process be extended to 24 from 19.

The package of extended support would include help with living expenses as many youth who are aged out end up going on welfare or living on the street.

It would also include educational assistance to help youth complete high school and enable them to attend post-secondary education, leading to more skilled workers. Lastly, it would give the youth access to support and programs.

He has estimated $60 million would be required to do all this every year, but it would offset costs of $200-$300 million.

"Just the improvement in educational outcomes themselves could help pay for the extended support," said Shaffer.

"Governments don't move as fast as they should and they're always trying to minimize their investments in these areas but I think there is increasing recognition that there are returns and that it's socially supported."

According to Shaffer, surveys in B.C. showed that the general population thought youth should receive the support that non-foster children receive.

"You don't turn 18 or 19 and just...know how to manage on your own."