Need for services for 16- and 17-year olds growing quickly: early analysis of newly expanded age of protection

On January 1, 2018, Ontario’s child protection legislation was amended to extend child protection services to youth aged 16 and 17, a change that was long advocated for by OACAS and Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies (CASs). An early analysis by OACAS and Children’s Aid Societies reinforced much of what the child welfare sector has known for decades: this group of youth is sizable and underserved.

To support CASs and help inform provincial training and resource needs, OACAS invited agency staff to participate in a series of virtual focus groups to learn about their experiences working with this new population. Thirty-three Children’s Aid Societies joined the teleconference calls in the early months of 2018.

Between January 1st and March 23rd, 2018, Children’s Aid Societies received referrals for 944 youth in the new age bracket. They also identified an additional 814 youth in existing protection families or files who were previously ineligible for services because of their age. In speaking publicly about the new legislation, Minister of Children and Youth Services, Hon. Michael Coteau previously estimated that as many as 1,600 youth would be helped in its first year of implementation. However, OACAS’s early analysis shows that, in just the first three months of 2018, already more than 1,700 young people have been identified for services.

“What our members are telling us is compelling. Calls are coming in every day,” says Wendy Miller, Senior Manager of Government and Stakeholder Relations at OACAS.

The new youth were referred for services by a variety of stakeholders. The most common referrers, besides self-referral, were police or youth justice related professionals, schools or educational professionals, community members, and mental health service providers. The types of issues that brought these youth into contact with Children’s Aid Societies included, among others, parent-teen or family conflict, abandonment or isolation, homelessness or housing insecurity, and mental or emotional health issues.

Not all youth who are referred to a Children’s Aid Society end up needing protection. Child protection staff use the Eligibility Spectrum to determine whether a child, youth, or family require services. One hundred and sixty-nine of the 16- and 17- year olds referred for services were found not to be in need of protection.

For those requiring protection, Children’s Aid Societies work first and foremost to keep the children and youth safely at home with their families. If this is not possible, they do their best to find someone – for example extended family or a family friend – for the child or youth to stay with. Alternatively, youth aged 16 and 17 are given the option of entering into a Voluntary Youth Services Agreement (VYSA), which allows them to access services and supports through the Children’s Aid Society. Of the youth found to be in need of protection, 72 chose to enter into a VYSA, with many more considering it at the time of the last teleconference. For the youth who opted not to sign a VYSA, they were offered access to a variety of other resources, through the CAS and/or community groups or services.

When asked about the time required on the part of child protection workers to support this new population of youth, the consensus among agency staff was that they require more time, largely because working with older youth can involve more time engaging and building relationships with them. Which is why it is especially critical that the Ontario government ensure Children’s Aid Societies are adequately resourced to address this legislative change. (Find out what else the child welfare sector is asking for this election here.)

OACAS will continue to monitor how services to 16- and 17- year olds are being rolled out, and the challenges and opportunities working with this new population presents for Children’s Aid Societies.