A new app being pitched by Alberta Children’s Services as a means to help young adults transitioning out of the child welfare system “is a perfect way to connect with kids,” says one of the co-developers, but it has to be backed by adequate resources.
“(The app) shouldn’t be a replacement. The one-on-one connecting with young people, all people in need, all people that are going through a transition process or any kind of reconnecting with their community, it’s important that they have the one-on-one face time. These tools should not be replacing people,” said Allen Benson, CEO of Native Counselling Services Alberta (NCSA).
The app is called Connections and provides more than 150 resources in 17 topic areas, such as money, food, health, mental health, employment, culture and spirituality. Benson expects to add to the app as more needs are identified.
“Our intent for that app is to be able to help them connect with service agencies, connect with people and give that additional information and support to tweak their interest in whatever issues they have.”
NCSA and Alberta Children’s Services collaborated in the creation of the Connections app, which was launched on National Indigenous Peoples Day. The app took about 18 months to develop and involved a youth focus group to help shape it.
“We know that young adults coming out of government care need financial, social and emotional resources to help them successfully transition into the next phase of their lives. This app is a critical tool to help them at a crucial period in their lives and will give them access to important information at their fingertips,” said Alberta Children’s Services, Minister Rebecca Schulz in a news release.
If the app is as successful as developers are counting on, it could lead to service capacity being stretched.
“If that’s the case, that just once again proves that, according to (Office of the Child and Youth Advocate’s) reports, why it’s important for government to put more resources into supports for young people,” said Benson.
Windspeaker.com requested an interview with Alberta Children’s Services but received an email statement instead.
“For further resources to ensure that youth aging out of care are supported, the funding agreement with the Native Counselling Services of Alberta will cover post-app-launch troubleshooting and updates. We believe in this important initiative and are pleased to support it,” wrote department spokesperson Nancy Bishay.
However, Benson draws attention to the need for resources for “community navigators” to help young people negotiate the system to get the help they require.
“The health and safety of children and youth is our number one priority. Children’s Services continually adjusts our policies and practices to further prioritize children and youth staying connected to their culture, families, and communities,” wrote Bishay.
She also pointed to the Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAAs) that are available to help youth transitioning out of care.
However, the shortfall of SFAAs has been the topic of two reports undertaken in the past eight years by the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA).
In a November 2019 report entitled “A critical time: A special report on emerging adults leaving Children’s Services care,” the focus fell on six young people who died over nine months in 2018 while receiving services through SFAA, and 102 other young adults in that same time frame who needed advocacy because of 185 issues related to SFAAs.
While SFAAs can be accessed until a young adult turns 24, not all services offered under SFAAs are available up until that age.
“Young people told us that supports provided under SFAAs are often confusing, inconsistent and subject to conditions. Accessing supports is challenging due to waitlists, funding and location of services. Many emerging adults struggle to secure safe and stable housing, and there is a lack of clarity about supports and services available under a SFAA. Young adults fear losing support, either due to their successes or their setbacks,” wrote Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff.
It was also noted that although Children’s Service’s policy required caseworkers to notify young adults of the existence of SFAAs, that was not always done.
In April 2013, the OCYA released a special report entitled “Where do we go from here?” and those issues addressing youth aging out of care were also identified in the 2019 report.
The Advancing Futures program is also available to youth aging out of care and pays for all post-secondary costs, including a living allowance, and mentoring programs to help build natural and lifelong connections can continue well into adulthood.
“Alberta is the only jurisdiction in Canada to offer a bursary program that includes social, emotional and funding supports specifically for young adults formerly in care while they pursue post-secondary studies,” stated Bishay.
However, supports offered through Advancing Futures “are supports that all emerging adults could benefit from, whether or not they are currently pursuing post-secondary education,” notes the 2019 OCYA report.
The first recommendation that came from the 2019 report cannot be addressed through an app: “There should be specific training for Children’s Services professionals relating to best practices for working with young adults and recognizing their unique risks and challenges.
“Children’s Services staff have an opportunity to be agents of change as they support young adults in navigating their way to greater independence. This role is critical to helping young people build enduring relationships, and helping other systems (and the public) to understand what works best when working with this age group.”
“I think it’s incumbent upon us as agencies – advocate agencies and service agencies – to be able to make sure that resources are allocated to ensure our young people get the supports they need,” said Benson.
According to the OCYA, each year in Alberta more than 600 young people age out of the child intervention system, and approximately 90 per cent enter into SFAAs. The number of young people entering into SFAAs has steadily increased in recent years and has more than doubled since Children’s Services expanded the eligible age range from 22 years to 24 years.
According to Alberta Child Intervention Information and Statistics, in March 2020 there were 2,167 young adults who had SFAAs. From April 1, 2020, to March 30, 2021, there were 14 deaths of young adults with SFAAs. That was the highest number of deaths in that 12-month time frame since 2012. No figures are available to indicate how many of these young adults were Indigenous.
In March 2020, 69 per cent of children and youth receiving services in care were Indigenous. Indigenous children account for 10 per cent of Alberta’s population 17 years and younger.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com