In 2017, I was part of a team of people at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada who wrote a policy brief titled, Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: A proposal for action. Drawing on the results of the first pan-Canadian survey on youth homelessness, Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey the brief focused on the disproportionate number of young people who had been involved with child protection services and then later became homeless. Indeed, 57.8% of homeless youth surveyed reported some type of involvement with child protection services over their lifetime. By comparison, in the general population, only 0.3% of young people receive child welfare service. This means, youth experiencing homelessness are far more likely to report interactions with the child welfare system than young people in the general population.
Where research reveals systematic patterns of exclusion and neglect – that is, where findings reveal that one group is experiencing disproportionately negative outcomes (relative to the general population) in a particular public sector context – this suggests the need for changes in public policy, programming and practice. Since producing this brief, I have been working with an incredibly talented and passionate McGill undergraduate student (who also happens to be the Vice President of Youth in Care Canada), Arisha Khan. Together, we have been exploring just uses of data to better serve the interests of those young people who depend on the state for their access to basic services (e.g., housing, healthcare and food) as well as their self-efficacy and status as citizens.
One component of this work revolved around a grant application that has just been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Data Justice: Fostering equitable data-led strategies to prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness). Another aspect of our work revolved around a policy brief, which we co-wrote and published with the Montreal data-for-good organization, Powered by Data. The brief outlines how a rights-based and custodial approach to administrative data could a) effectively support young people in and leaving care to participate more actively in their transition planning and engage in institutional self-advocacy; and b) enable systemic oversight of intervention implementation and outcomes for young people in and leaving the provincial care system. We produced this brief with the hope that it would be useful to government decision-makers, service providers, researchers, and advocates interested in understanding how institutional data could be used to improve outcomes for youth in and leaving care. In particular, we wanted to explore whether a different orientation to data collection and use in child protection systems could prevent young people from graduating from provincial child welfare systems into homelessness. In addition to this practical concern, we also undertook to think through the ethical and human rights implications of more recent moves towards data-driven service delivery in Canada, focusing on how we might make this move with the best interests of young people in mind.
As data collection, management and use practices have become more popular, research is beginning to illuminate how these new monitoring, evaluative and predictive technologies are changing governance processes within and across the public sector, as well as in civil society. For example, Virginia Eubanks in the US and Emily Keddell in New Zealand have shown how data-led initiatives in the social service sector, implemented to improve systems efficiencies (for e.g., predicting child maltreatment through algorithmic modeling; mediating the distribution of housing and economic resources, where demand vastly outstrips supply) have had negative effects on the lives of people living in poverty. Indeed, their research suggests that these new technologies increase forms of non-consensual monitoring among groups of people who have historically experiences higher levels of surveillance and criminalization. These groups included people people living in poverty and without stable housing. Furthermore, the new technologies have not been shown to improve services or durably close service demand and supply gaps.
Grounded in this emerging body of critical scholarship, the content, use-cases and recommendations we put forward in our policy brief sought to balance a concern for individual rights to access and privacy with concerns for collective wellbeing and the assurance of human rights protection for all young people. As well as ensuring young people have access to – and can annotate – the institutional data about their experiences in care, we suggest that these same data must be made available to a custodial research body in order to monitor systems-level youth outcomes; identify systemic inequities and structural drivers of inequality; and enable continuous quality improvement efforts within the system.
As a researcher, I think data is extremely useful in guiding systems-change efforts. Rather than a knee-jerk resistance to the move towards data-driven governance in Canada, I am keen to use research data to systematically identify possibilities and problems within existing state systems (e.g., social housing, child welfare, corrections and public safety, education, immigration and youth justice); design and propose equitable solutions, which address outcome disproportionalities generated along racial-ethnic, class and gender lines; and ensure that public sector institutions disrupt, rather than entrench, historically situated inequalities. Using Data to Enable Better Outcomes for Young People Leaving Care is our first collaborative attempt to do just that.
As homelessness prevention efforts across Canada gather momentum, my intention is to support all youth-serving institutions to consider roles they can play in making the shift from emergency service provision to homelessness prevention for youth. As a starting place, consider reading this report and learning more about how a different approach to administrative data use could enable housing and other forms of stability for youth leaving care.