Advocate pushes for child-welfare change

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Child welfare advocate Jane Kovarikova

Ontario youth who have ‘aged-out’ of foster care have been poorly served by a system that doesn’t include their voices or measure their experiences, says a child rights advocate studying at Western.

Jane Kovarikova, PhD candidate in political science, has founded the Child Welfare Political Action Committee to mobilize other advocates for policy change.

Research has shown that those leaving the child protection system at age 18 have poorer life outcomes than their peers, she said, but there’s scant evidence-based research on which interventions work and which don’t.

“We need to get back to the basics, including tracking outcomes after care,” she said. “If you don’t have a baseline and you’re spending money on well-meaning interventions and not checking back on whether they’ve worked, whether they’re helping or harming … that’s a problem.”

Kovarikova is board chair of Simcoe-Muskoka Family Connexions, the first board chair in the agency’s 126 years to have been raised in care. It’s also the same agency that became responsible for her when she entered foster care at the age of six.

She began living on her own at age 16, had attended and left five high schools by Grade 10. She was accepted as a mature student into college and then graduated with MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics. She became chief of staff to an Ontario parliamentarian, where she was instrumental in developing legislation that is reducing youth homelessness in Ontario.

Now she is a year away from completing her doctorate under the supervision of Western political science professor Radoslav Dimitrov.

No one, she said, has an idea of how many others may have similar stories – or dramatically different ones – because no one tracks outcomes of children in care once they age out of the system.

Without checking in on the ‘after’ stories of adults who have been in care, it’s impossible to understand which policies and measures work and which ones don’t – in addressing housing, education, parenthood and psychological supports, for example.

“There’s never been this push towards evidence-based policymaking. So what do you do about it? You let the data show you,” she said.

And if you are Kovarikova, you also gather a group of people with lived experience and other advocates to lobby for change.

The Child Welfare PAC is lobbying for more evidence-based public policymaking for children in foster care; better access to post-secondary education for young people in care and aged-out of care; improved privacy protection for those raised in foster care; and a mental health strategy that includes practitioners’ training in trauma-informed services.

So far, the group has more than 100 advocates, 60 per cent of them with lived experience.

Kovarikova hopes it will be a path towards more advocacy with and by people who have been in care. “We’ve historically been excluded from decision-making and leadership positions,” she said, and only a few who have been in care sit on boards of directors of Ontario’s dozens of child-welfare agencies. “There has never been a concerted push to include our voices in a concrete way.

“I encourage people with lived experience to get engaged in leadership positions,” she said. “The system won’t really change without their wisdom being fed into it.”