Until recently, there were few Canadian research studies that examined the relationship between child protection services (CPS) and youth homelessness. However, available studies show a link between CPS and youth homelessness in Canada. Those in government care are more prone to substance-related behaviours. Additionally, some marginalized groups, such as Indigenous Peoples and 2SLGBTQA+ and non-binary youth, are more likely to have previous involvement with CPS and experience homelessness. These groups also face challenges accessing healthcare, education, and job opportunities.

In this blog, we will delve into the results from the 2019 Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, which surveyed over 1,375 youth on their experiences of homelessness across Canada. This survey is a follow-up to the 2016 edition and provides valuable insights into the correlation between youth homelessness and CPS.

How Many Young People Have Had CPS Involvement? 

The first key detail from the survey results is the proportion of youth experiencing homelessness who have been involved with CPS. Of the youth who participated in the survey, 61.1% disclosed that they had dealt with CPS before. For the purpose of this blog, they will be referred to as the ”CPS group.” On the other hand, 38.9% reported they had not interacted with CPS at all. This group will be referred to as the“non-CPS group.” 

Not everyone who had CPS involvement had the same experience. Once we understand the prevalence of CPS involvement, we can dig into the details of what those experiences entailed: 

  • 21.3% were placed in foster care families.
  • 14% resided in group homes. 
  • 28% experienced both foster care and group home placements.
  • 36.7% reported they had interactions with other child protection services.

Transitions from Care

Youth who were placed in care are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, as there is often little support provided for transitioning out of care. While 30% of youth respondents reported that they received some degree of support in transitional planning while in care, the majority (51.6%) reported not receiving any help in creating a suitable plan for where they could go or how they would support themselves after leaving CPS care. 

Despite this increased vulnerability, among the participants who engaged with CPS, only 13.7% indicated that they knew whether their risk of homelessness was evaluated before leaving care. The majority (49%), however, were not aware of any assessment being conducted, while the rest of the participants (37.3%) were unsure.

The transition from care happens at a younger age than you might expect. On average, youth had their first contact with CPS at age 7 and, if they were placed in care, they exited it at age 14. This likely contributes to the fact that the CPS group experienced homelessness at a younger age than the non-CPS group. 

Age of First Experience of Homelessness

While the 2016 Without a Home survey found that 40.1% of youth participants had their first experience of homelessness before age 16, this number had fallen to 31.9% in the 2019 survey. However, among these youth who experienced homelessness at the youngest ages, 73.3% had CPS involvement. Overall, 37.7% of the CPS group reported their first homelessness experience occurred before they were 16, which is significantly higher than the average.

In general, the mean age of the first experience of homelessness was 16 for the CPS group and 17.4 for the non-CPS group (the average ages were, respectively 19.8 and 20.5). Findings also show that those with an Indigenous identity are more likely to experience their first homelessness experience at a lower age.

What Are the Demographics of Youth Who Have Had Involvement with CPS?

The average age of the youth surveyed was 19. In terms of race, 63% of the CPS group identified as white, 11.5% as Black, and 25.5% as racialized, and in terms of gender, 43.9% identified as women and 45.1% as men, with 1% identifying as something other. Over a third (36.5%) identified as 2SLGBTQA+, with 11% specifically identifying as a gender minority.

The data shows that women were more likely to have CPS involvement, making up 43.9% of the CPS group and only 34.3% of the non-CPS group. Youth who identified as 2SLGBTQA+ were more likely to have CPS involvement than those who did not (36.5% of the CPS group identified as 2SLGBTQA+ vs. 31.1% of the non-CPS group). CPS involvement was less common among Black youth (11.5% vs. 21.6%) but more common among racialized youth (25.5% vs. 18.5%). Strikingly, Indigenous youth were more than twice as likely to report CPS involvement (34.9% vs. 16.3%).

Adverse Childhood Experiences, Mental Health, and Substance Use 

It appears that many young individuals who had interactions with CPS and faced homelessness also had challenging childhoods. We assessed these difficulties on a scale from 0 (no challenges) to 9 (extremely challenging), with a higher score indicating a greater number of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). The results indicate that the CPS group had an average score of 4.78, while the non-CPS group averaged 3.42. This aligns with the fact that the non-CPS group reported a higher quality of life.

Having a history of CPS involvement was associated with a higher prevalence of substance or alcohol overdoses, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations. In the CPS group, 38.8% reported having substance or alcohol overdose episodes, which was only the case for 29% of the non-CPS group. 

Importantly, exposure to more ACEs is linked to a lower age of the first experience of homelessness, especially for those previously involved with CPS. 

Educational Outcomes and Support Systems 

Those with CPS involvement were more likely to report lower educational attainment. Most youth participants (67.9%) reported an educational attainment of less than a high school. Findings also showed that those with a history of CPS were at an increased risk for learning disabilities (57.3%) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (47.9%). In contrast, the non-CPS group had a higher educational status, with 12.8% reporting a college degree or higher. On a more positive note, the CPS group seemed to have a stronger support system of friends.

What Can We Learn from These Findings?

The purpose of collecting data like this is to be able to construct better solutions for ending youth homelessness. Since it is clear that youth with CPS involvement are experiencing homelessness earlier and at a disproportionate rate, focusing on the CPS system is a logical starting point for developing solutions. 

In particular, planned transitions from care are critically important. Achieving seamless transitions for youth exiting the care system demands coordinated efforts and investment at all levels of the government in service provision and implementing post-care programs. Continuous financial support is essential to mitigate potential adverse outcomes.

Social workers play a pivotal role in ensuring that youth have access to housing as they transition into adulthood. Research highlights an important link between young individuals in care and their outreach social worker. It is crucial that this relationship extends beyond the youths' exit from the child welfare system to reduce their risk of homelessness. This study highlights the promise of school-based early intervention strategies.

In Conclusion

Research has shown that a history of youth interaction with CPS has long-term impacts on young people’s lives after leaving CPS care—notably, an increased risk of homelessness at a younger age. To combat this, prevention-focused strategies and programs should be implemented, including transitional planning for leaving CPS, financial supports, building life skills, receiving support from social workers, as well as reuniting youth with their families. These strategies are important as they can reduce the long-term harm of CPS interaction and provide more stable housing opportunities so youth can thrive. 

Note: I would like to thank Aleksija Milovanovic for research assistance in the writing of the blog, and am thankful to Emma Amon and C.L. Michel for copyediting the blog.

This blog is based on the article: “Child protection services and youth experiencing homelessness: Findings of the 2019 national youth homelessness survey in Canada” published at the Journal of Children and Youth Services Review.