When my friend Amanda Keller was growing up in group homes in the United States some of the people who were paid to raise her told her that she would never amount to much. And truth be told, the outlook is pretty grim for many children who age out of foster care.
“So many kids who come out of the system are unprepared and incapable of navigating the world,” she tells me over coffee at a Montreal Tim Horton’s. “They’re more likely to end up committing crimes, getting assaulted, ending up homeless, or forced into prostitution. Just about every bad thing you can imagine related to the fact that they don’t have a stable family system and are kicked out at 18 or 19 without any supports. If we had a bit of supports we might able to avoid these difficulties and some very high societal costs.”
The barriers between youth in and from care and societal standards of success are many. According to National Foster Care Month website only 54 per cent of youth from care earn a high school diploma and only two per cent go on to obtain a bachelor or graduate degree.
Keller has defied the odds. Not only did graduate high school with honours, she also went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio University, and a master’s degree in psychiatry from McGill University in Montreal. She immigrated to Canada in 2005, learned French, and now works as a youth outreach worker for a Jewish social service agency in Montreal.
“When they hired me my bosses said they weren’t aware of any homeless Jewish youth,” recalls Keller. “I told them I knew of several and could bring them to the new program and they said that would be wonderful.”
In 2009 some philanthropists in Montreal’s Jewish community realized there were many young drug addicts within their community who were falling through the cracks. So, they raised money and donated it to a Jewish social service agency which tasked Keller and her supervisor with setting up the program.
Keller’s clients are Jewish youth who have entered adulthood without any supports. Some come from foster care or unstable families. She helps them navigate problems such as: homelessness, mental health issues, trauma, education, addiction, and health care.
“I would have loved to have someone like me in my life,” jokes Keller. “I come to doctors’ appointments, I meet their landlords, go with them to welfare, or do their paperwork. I’ve waited with people in emergency who were ready to kill themselves, or dealing with a bad dose of heroin, or an HIV diagnosis. I make sure they are seen and treated fairly. I’ve had kids denied seven times to welfare so I’ll write a letter and they are immediately given welfare. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
Keller says that the services provided by her organization are the exception – not the rule.
She points out that many of the community services run by the government are limited in scope. They may offer referral services, a social worker, or a psychologist but the waiting lists can be long and there are no additional supports, she says.
She would like to expand the services now afforded to Jewish youth through her program to all Quebec youth in and from care and has set about establishing an as of yet unnamed youth in care network.
“I would love it to be what I have done for the Jewish organization,” she explains. “A place where youth can drop in and get advice when they need it. A place where there’s an emergency fund they can access if they find themselves in difficulty perhaps rent for one month, maybe a deposit for their first apartment or help them secure them moving fees. These little issues, which many people get addressed by their parents or other relatives, can create over-whelming obstacles for youth from care.”
She hopes the network will give youth in and from care a voice to inform policy makers and service providers of what they are doing right and what they could be doing better. She will also ensure that the network, which will be in a predominately French-speaking province, will provide all of its services in both English and French.
“We’ve never had youth in care network, and the big thing I’m doing is trying to make it a bilingual network,” she says. “When I worked at homeless street kid network in Montreal we had youth from all over Canada. About 40 to 50 per cent of our kids were Anglophone. I know that a French Canadian youth in BC would be able to get services at youth in care network in BC so why shouldn’t a BC youth receive the same here?”
Keller says the nascent network has already partnered with a major university who will provide them with office space as well as four francophone youth protection agencies and the anglophone social service agency.
“I’ve got the right people on board we’re just looking for funding to pay the alumni staff.”
For more information on the network please email firstname.lastname@example.org