Former foster kid on road to changing child welfare system

·8 min read

If Jane Kovarikova is going to talk about seeking and getting permission to leave the foster care system at age 16, she needs to provide consent for her name to be used, according to stipulations under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act.

During a phone interview, instead of getting into how she struck out on her own in 2000, equipped with a $663 monthly stipend to find her way in the world, she addressed the consent issue head-on.

“I’ve run into this before and I’m trying to actually get it changed under the legislation, because the spirit of the law is to protect minors. It’s not intended to muzzle fully grown adults from discussing their own lived experience," she said.

Kovarikova, the former Barrie foster kid turned PhD candidate, advocate and founder of a not-for-profit organization pushing for “a progressive child welfare system," has set her sights squarely on policy and legislation.

She says foster children make up a very vulnerable population that is treated like no other, readily citing examples of how their rights are not always upheld as they should be. There’s excessive name protection at one end of the spectrum and on the other is open foster care files, which can be accessed long after the kids have grown up and left the system.

As for the foster system in which she was raised and which continues to exist today, there are failings in the day-to-day protection, she says.

Some of those areas of concern have been highlighted with the 2019 death of David Roman in a Barrie foster home and a series of recently launched lawsuits, along with a criminal case in which another youth faces a first-degree murder charge.

But Kovarikova is concerned this isn’t the first tragedy the system has seen because of its own vulnerabilities.

In looking toward the future, she’s hoping for a system that relies more upon evidence-based policy making and improved future outcomes through tracking and studies.

“If you don’t know how many of your kids are homeless after (they) age out, how do you know all the things you invested into ensure they wouldn’t be homeless actually worked? And then we end up doing the same old thing," she said.

“Our theory of change is it’s the system that’s defective, not the child. And if you need to correct a defective system, you need to go after the system designers, which are the legislators. ... Those elected members have the responsibility over that system which is not producing great results," Kovarikova added.

In fact, she says, what little scientific evidence that exists of Crown wards and their success focuses largely on education. Only 44 per cent of foster children ever graduate from high school.

When Kovarikova went out on her own, she defaulted into the expected pattern, giving up after trying five high schools.

At age 18, after learning she could seek post-secondary education as a mature student, she thought she’d give Georgian College a try. She earned a certificate after one year and then moved on to Laurentian University to major in psychology.

She doggedly pursued education, first going to London, England for a master's degree at the London School of Economics on money borrowed from the bank and later to Western University in London, Ont., for a PhD in political science. Between the two Londons were a couple of years in Italy where she lived and started working off her student debt.

Along the way, she became an advocate for others following her in the foster system.

Her life’s journey also included a dive into the political realm. As a constituency assistant for Rodney Jackson, who was Barrie’s MPP from 2011 to 2014, she was involved in his Youth Right to Care bill. The proposed legislation was designed for children aged 16 and 17 entering care to allow voluntary access to age appropriate services through the child welfare system, which was previously unavailable to those who hadn’t accessed the system prior to age 16.

Despite receiving all-party support, the private member’s bill died along the way, as most do, but the subsequent Liberal government picked up where the Progressive Conservatives had left off allowing Kovarikova to witness its evolution.

Stacked with enough information on the education side of the foster equation, Kovarikova saw the value of post-secondary education. By this point, she’d had her ticket stamped a couple of times and knew that the certificates, diplomas and degrees increase an individual’s confidence level. They might open the door for opportunities as well.

So along came the Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada (Child Welfare PAC) in 2017. Its raison d’etre is breaking the cycle that sees youth leaving child protection having worse life outcomes than their peers.

A fair shake is what they need, Kovarikova says, along with reducing the financial barriers.

So convincing Canada’s colleges and universities to set aside some tuition-free spots for current and former foster children — with no age limit — became one of the “four pillars” upon which Child Welfare PAC was built.

And they’re well on their way, Kovarikova says. A dozen post-secondary institutions in four provinces have so far made more than 150 positions available with many more anticipated. The goal is for schools across the country to follow suit.

“That would definitely be a big step toward levelling the life outcomes for youth in care because the science shows us that post-secondary credentials are the only evidence-based pathways to level the playing field for us,” she said. “That’s the only one that’s studied.

“We have a society where you require credentials and maybe that’s apprenticeship training, maybe it’s college, maybe it’s university. … It’s something you definitely need to have a fair chance at life, especially if you’re a former foster child," Kovarikova added.

And focusing strictly on policy, the organization says the other goals are also achievable.

One goes back to the files of foster kids being available for others to examine indefinitely, even long after they’ve become adults, infringing their privacy rights — a protection that’s extended to young offenders.

“The most intimate and traumatic details of my entire childhood were recorded into an electronic file” by third parties, told by third parties, she said. “When you age out, you assume it’s closed, and this is what they tell you. But, in fact, it is searchable and completely accessible to any child protection employee in the province for the rest of your life.

“Even juvenile offenders have more privacy rights than that. Their records get sealed at 18.”

This has led to a private members bill by Sarnia MPP Bob Bailey with cross-party support. The legislation is modelled after the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The move to introduce privacy rights for former foster children has crossed the crucial threshold of second reading and is on its way to becoming law. And Kovarikova says there is interest in other provinces, which also have that “legislative weakness.”

Another area she believes worthy of attention is a comprehensive mental-health strategy for youth in care.

The organization has been lobbying to have the curriculum for future social workers be revised to identify the elevated levels of post-traumatic stress endured by former Crown wards with the goal of having a more trauma-informed service model.

“If we had enough system change in those four areas, then the system overall would see a marked improvement, is the hope. When we create deliverables within each of those areas, they end being rolled out country-wide, hopefully we have better systems across Canada for it,” she said.

“I think the potential is completely untapped in this population.”

Kovarikova is pushing for more reliance on evidence-based research and information to measure outcomes — currently, she says, studies generally stop at age 30 so life outcomes for former foster kids are unknown. She believes the development of a progressive system is reliant upon measuring the impact of initiatives implemented.

“That’s a parallel to right now,” she said, referring to the changes afoot resulting from the Barrie group-home death. “There’s going to be a lot of well-meaning responses to the tragedy and if there’s no commitment to measuring the impact of those responses then we’re doomed to repeat that.”

While Kovarikova believes good intentions are not good enough for good results — she stresses there’s still room for the good intentions and presents her own call to action.

“We’ve all got to step in and help a little bit,” she said.

There's an opportunity for people to donate money to a post-secondary institution to help them create more tuition-free spots. A letter of support for the private member’s bill extending privacy protections to former foster kids could help as well, she says.

“There’s board governance opportunities at these children’s aid. If you don’t think that children’s aids are doing a good enough job, they don’t have enough oversight, well the community oversees it, right? So you can apply from the community to sit on one of these children’s aids boards to have your say to help modernize the system, effectively.”

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com