A 21-year-old Edmonton mother says she may be forced to return to sex work when changes kick in for a program designed to help young adults transition out of the child intervention system.
The young woman, whom the CBC is identifying by the initials A.C., is seeking a court injunction that would prevent hundreds of young Albertans from losing their benefits next month.
Last November the UCP government announced the maximum age for Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAA) would drop from 24 to 22 years of age, as of April 1.
Children’s services won’t reveal how much money was cut from the program but says the participants affected will be transitioned to other programs as appropriate.
The injunction requests a delay to the change until a lawsuit, also launched by A.C., is resolved.
Her constitutional challenge warns that cutting off participants two years earlier than expected will ultimately cost more.
‘It made me feel disgusted’
Former participants will be at greater risk of relapsing into drug dependency or homelessness, or having their children apprehended, the application says.
If the change goes through, nearly 500 participants would immediately lose their benefits. A.C. turns 22 this summer.
“The first thing that went through my mind was that I would have to return to sex work,” said A.C. in an affidavit filed in Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench on March 3.
“It made me feel disgusted but I don’t know any other way to make the money I need to support myself and my family. I don’t have any other skills or work experience.”
Avnish Nanda, the lawyer representing A.C., said the youth in the program have grown up in the care of “a government that are effectively the parents” and “there is a special fiduciary relationship that continues into their early adulthood.”
Instrumental in that process, is a designated social worker who helps clients achieve their goals by mapping out a plan until they turn 24, Nanda said.
“Their intent is to address issues to allow a person to transition toward sustainable adulthood,” Nanda said. “With this change there’s not enough time for these people already in the program to complete what they were working on.”
In an interview with CBC Thursday, dressed in sneakers and a hoodie, A.C.’s voice was calm as she described how the program has helped her break free from a cycle of violence and addiction.
At 11, A.C. was repeatedly beaten by her mother after her father went to prison for murder.
A year later, she moved into a trap house where she was told she was pretty and could make money partying with men. She would black out from drugs and alcohol and wake up being sexually assaulted.
Then at 16, A.C. had a baby. Becoming a parent eventually helped her realize she wanted to change her life so she could support herself and her daughter. She said the SFAA program is helping her reach that goal.
A.C. receives a monthly allowance of $1,990 that covers expenses like childcare and rent while she upgrades her education.
She plans to transfer to university to become an Aborginal liaison and help other youth overcome circumstances like hers.
I worry about all the other youth … I’m going to be that fighting voice for them.– A.C.
A.C. said with support from her social worker she has completed a pre-employment course and created an alcohol free home for her daughter.
She takes her little girl to powwows to dance in her pink and yellow jingle dress and connect with her Cree culture.
But A.C. said the court challenge is not just for her and her daughter.
“I worry about all the other youth,” A.C.said. “I’m going to be that fighting voice for them.”
In 2013, under the leadership of the late Progressive Conservative MLA and minister of human services, Manmeet Bhullar, the maximum age of SFAA recipients rose from 22 to 24.
Prior to the decision, Mark Cherrington, a social justice advocate with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, recalls Bhullar accompanying him to group homes to chat with youth.
“He understood where child welfare’s role needs to be — not just for children, but for young adults, because many of these children have no natural supports,” Cherrington said. “Child welfare is their mom and dad.”
Cherrington, who is an expert witness in the lawsuit, said hundreds of his clients have received vital support from SFAA youth workers such as lifts to appointments, bus passes, and help with emergencies in the middle of the night.
He said many of the women about to be cut off have small children of their own.
“Dollars to doughnuts that we will be opening files at a much greater cost to the taxpayers for these small children of these mothers and single dads, who have all of a sudden lost these emotional supports,” Cherrington said.
The court challenge also draws on the expertise of Jacqueline Pei, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, who specializes in marginalized youth.
The part of the brain which allows people to exercise good judgment in difficult situations, is not fully developed until age 25, Pei said. But for adults transitioning out of care, the challenges are even greater, and by age 22, they are still grappling to secure housing and employment, she said.
“Given their histories of trauma and adversity, youth in the SFAA program present with an elevated complexity of needs that prolongs their journey to independence,” Pei wrote in her 463-page affidavit.
The “abrupt change” reinforces life-long feelings of abandonment by adults and the government systems, Pei wrote.
“We have not only removed support but increased vulnerability at a time when the youth are becoming ready to take the steps needed for a healthy future.”
‘We remain committed’
Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz did not provide an interview but her department sent a statement via email.
“We remain committed to better supporting young adults until they are 22 so they have the skills needed to successfully transition from child intervention services into adulthood,” wrote press secretary Lauren Armstrong.
“We have reviewed the circumstances of each young adult affected by this change to ensure we align supports with their individual needs and to begin transitioning to other government programs, as appropriate.”