Foster care is linked to homelessness in two ways. First, a foster care history is linked to later homelessness. Research highlights that over 40 percent of homeless youth in Canada have been involved with child welfare services, including foster care and group homes. This figure includes foster youth who have aged out of the system, those who left their placement due to negative experiences and youth who returned home or went to live with immediate or extended family members.
The second link between foster care and homelessness is related to family homelessness. Children of homeless families are more likely to end up in foster care or group homes. For homeless parents, homelessness, rather than parental substance use and/or mental illness, was more strongly associated with their children being placed in foster care. Although homelessness is not the only reason for youth entering into care, the system failures need to be addressed to produce better outcomes as a way to prevent and reduce youth homelessness.
Why Do Some Foster Youth End Up Homeless?
There are a number of reasons foster care could lead to homelessness. While in foster care, youth are not always provided with adequate supports to help them cope with negative experiences. These experiences may include sexual and physical abuse, family dissolution, unhealthy relationships, poor mental health, parental alcohol and substance use and abandonment.
In addition, multiple placements can preclude the development of the nurturing bonds that have been shown to be critical to normal development. Moving children from placement to placement may worsen the inability of the foster care system to provide them with consistent treatment and supports. Without stability and effective support systems, foster children run higher risks of experiencing psychological, social, educational, behavioural, and emotional issues compared to children who are not in foster care.
Homeless youth previously involved with child welfare services often leave their foster homes because of negative experiences during their stay. Others become homeless after aging out of the foster care system. These foster youth are left to fend for themselves, lacking the necessary resources, supports and life experiences to successfully transition into adulthood.
It is important to note that foster care doesn’t always lead to youth homelessness. A Canadian pilot study found that foster youth with positive experiences during care, such as having a stable foster home with a meaningful relationship, were critical to their well-being, healthy development and their future upon leaving the child welfare system. However, that same study also discovered that the child welfare system is generally ill-equipped to provide this key supportive relationship.
Indigenous youth are overrepresented in Canada’s child welfare system. Although, Indigenous Peoples make up four percent of the total Canadian population, Indigenous children represent 22 percent of child protection investigations. This phenomenon is highly criticized as part of the legacy of residential schools and a historical continuation of harmful social policies against Indigenous Peoples. These policies have resulted in the systemic removal of Indigenous children from their homes and adopting or fostering them out to non-Indigenous families. This family disruption has resulted in the detachment of many Indigenous youth from their communities, cultures and ultimately the loss of the sense of home. Child welfare systems across Canada are critical components of genuine and meaningful Reconciliation among Indigenous Peoples, non-Indigenous people and the Canadian government.
Although the body of literature on youth homelessness and foster care is limited, advocates propose future studies to include Indigenous voices, success stories, and knowledge from a multi-disciplinary approach, and in collaboration with those working at the community level. This is an important step toward affecting larger systemic changes.
While important steps have been taken recently to end youth homelessness in Canada, more work needs to be done to address the service gaps in child welfare systems. One initiative that puts the spotlight on foster youth is the annual BC Child and Youth in Care Week hosted by the province of British Columbia. This initiative aims to raise awareness, share resources among service providers, and celebrate foster youth.
Foster youth must have the same opportunities and support systems as all other youth to ensure the best outcomes possible.