Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House Toronto, applauds the overhaul of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act. Photo by Michael Swan

Covenant House applauds overhaul of Child, Youth and Family Services Act

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  • June 7, 2017

Canada’s largest agency for homeless youth is applauding a sweeping overhaul of Ontario’s Child, Youth and Family Services Act which will now treat homeless, abused and threatened 16- to 18-year-olds as children and not adults.

“We’re delighted with the announcement and the decision to proceed,” said Covenant House executive director Bruce Rivers. “Keeping our eyes on implementing and landing this so it’s effectively in place to support youth across the province is the next critical step.”

Passed June 1, this major overhaul to laws that govern children’s aid societies and the youth criminal justice system will have immediate benefit for upwards of 300 older youth per year who turn up at Toronto’s Covenant House. Until now, these youth were too old for foster care but too young to vote and often ended up couch surfing or on the street, said Rivers.

Changes in the law will put the Catholic agency’s “Youth in Transition” workers in a key position to help older youth. The mobile, 24/7 team of workers who meet with homeless and at-risk youth wherever and whenever needed — in coffee shops, shopping malls, shelters and parks, morning, noon and night — was pioneered by Covenant House. The program has since been backed by the province and taken up by other agencies. There are now a dozen YIT workers across Toronto.

“They will be playing an even more active role with youth around the kinds of services and supports that are available to them,” said Rivers.

For Ontario’s 38 children’s aid societies and nine parallel Aboriginal child well-being societies that serve more than 113,000 families per year — including the Toronto and Hamilton Catholic children’s aid societies — the new law also means collecting race-based data and designing services that take the child’s cultural and religious identity into account.

For a Catholic agency such as Covenant House, religion and culture have always been important, but the shelter and social service agency now finds itself dealing with a broader range of youth.

“The diversity amongst our youth is enormous,” said Rivers. “At Covenant House there’s a fair number of Muslim youth who come to our attention. That means understanding, for example, Ramadan, which is currently upon us. What are those young people’s religious beliefs and how can we support them?”

Over-representation of black and Aboriginal kids in the foster care system has been a major concern for Children and Youth Services Minister Michael Coteau.

The new law “puts children and youth at the heart of decision-making and paves the way for services that are more accountable and responsive,” said Coteau in a release.

Along with the broader mandate to serve 16- and 17-year-olds, the province will commit an extra $134 million for new programs in the child welfare system over four years starting in the 2017 budget. The higher age of protection is projected to add 1,600 young people per year to the system.

Covenant House employs nearly 200 professionals to deliver services to homeless youth that range from high school classes to psychological counselling and apartment hunting, but the agency still needs volunteers and community support to make the place work, said Rivers.

“Those volunteers do so many different things, from supporting the work to advisory committees, through to working directly with young people,” he said.

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