A key component of my work is providing legal options to homeless youth ages 16-24 in order to find safety and security to stabilize their lives. Unfortunately, what I’ve realized over the years is that there is a glaring lack of legal options for safety and security available to our most vulnerable youth. Youth needing care for the first time after they turn 16 are left with few choices to sustain their safety and security, often leaving them with no option but the shelter system or the streets. Their only options for financial support are to apply for welfare or sue their parents for support. Many of my clients have fled an unsafe home environment. Most have experienced crisis and trauma linked to their childhood or current situation of homelessness. They are trying to support themselves, live on a welfare allowance of $600/month, and get through high school.
Many of my clients are forced out of home because of their sexual identity, are newcomers to Ontario, or are suffering first onset of mental health problems. Homeless Hub research highlights the vulnerable demographic and rising numbers of homeless youth. Research also outlines the challenges a homeless youth faces, including the experience of shocking levels of violence and harm.
Working closely with the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and Raising the Roof, we at Justice for Children and Youth (“JFCY”) undertook a research agenda to identify gaps in the law with the goal of preventing youth homelessness. Concerned that 43% of homeless youth had previous experiences with a Children’s Aid Society, we were equally concerned that 57% of homeless youth had no contact with child welfare services. In our research, JFCY found that Ontario remained the only jurisdiction in Canada that significantly restricted first-time entry into the child welfare system for 16 and 17 year olds. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (“UN Convention”) defines a child as being under 18 years of age. Our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”) provides rights to safety, security, and equality in our society. We were concerned that Ontario is in breach of both the UN Convention and our Charter.
The Provincial Child Advocate’s Youth Leaving Care Hearings gave JFCY an opportunity to present our research and appeal to the Ontario Legislature to change the law. MPP Rod Jackson took up the challenge and created Bill 88: Child and Family Services Amendment Act (Children 16 Years of Age and Older). The Bill makes it possible for 16 and 17 year olds who find themselves without the support of family to voluntarily access child welfare support services. Bill 88 also incorporates the UN Convention into Ontario’s child welfare law, recognizing Canada’s international obligations to provide care for all of Ontario’s children in need. It is a solid step in the right direction to properly care for all children, and a key to reducing youth homelessness.
On Thursday, September 19th, a contingent of JFCY staff, volunteers and clients attended Queen’s Park to support the 2nd Reading of Bill 88. At the press conference, JFCY spoke in support of the law. We then watched the debate and vote. It was a great day of success. Not only did the Bill pass onto Committee and 3rd Reading, it passed unanimously in the House! Members of Provincial Parliament from each party strongly supported the Bill, some echoing JFCY’s position that the current law stands as unconstitutional. Our next steps are to support the Bill as it is debated in Committee, and push it towards 3rd Reading and ratification.
One of my clients that was unable to attend the Legislature texted me the next day to ask for an update. I told him the good news, and he texted back, “can I call the Children’s Aid Society and get their services now?” He’s 16, and living at a shelter. The Bill cannot be passed quickly enough.
Johanna MacDonald, B.A. LL.B. is the Street Youth Services Lawyer at Justice for Children and Youth. The service blends legal education, representation, and advocacy to and on behalf of street involved youth in Ontario. Johanna has tailored her practice to serve clients not only by responding to their immediate legal needs, but also by seeking to maximize their safety and security within the relevant legal and administrative systems. Current advocacy projects include policing and child welfare reform. Johanna was called to the bar in British Columbia in 2007, and in Ontario in 2009. She is also currently a student in the LLM Program at Osgoode Hall Law School.