How data could support advocacy for Canada’s youth in care: in conversation with Arisha Khan

We are excited to roll out a new blog post series on our administrative data policy coalition. Over fifty organizations, including key advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers in Ontario, are participating in this civil society initiative, which focuses on co-creating a Canadian policy agenda on administrative data-use to increase social impact. Over the coming months, we will be profiling some of these organizations on our blog, with a focus on highlighting the potential for administrative data to advance their advocacy and service delivery work in Ontario.

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To kick off this series, we spoke to Arisha Khan, Vice President of Youth in Care Canada (YICC). YICC focuses on research, policy, training, and network development around the child welfare system. The organization is driven entirely by youth in, and transitioning out of, government care, as well as those formerly in care. Khan shared with us about us some of the current challenges facing the organization’s research, advocacy, and policy work supporting youth in care in Canada—and the important role data could play in advancing this work.

Khan highlighted how the child welfare system is currently failing Black and Indigenous youth—as well as refugee children who enter care without citizenship or regularized immigration status. She also spoke to us about recent shifts in wardship orders, and their potential effects on supports to youth transitioning out of care. In this blog post, we discuss existing policy around data collection for addressing some of these issues, their limitations, and where additional changes to data-sharing policy could help identify key issues and increase government accountability.

Systemic racism in the Canadian care system

Indigenous and Black youth are overrepresented in Canada’s care system. Data from the 2016 census indicate that in many Canadian provinces and territories, over 80% of youth in care under 14 are Indigenous. And according to data released by the Children’s Aid Society, 30% of Toronto youth in the care system are Black.  In addition to being overrepresented, racialized youth experience discrimination inside the system itself—from being excluded from outings with white foster families, to not being trusted with household keys.

Data can be a powerful advocacy tool, providing concrete numbers that reflect the discrimination that racialized youth are already familiar with from their lived experience in navigating the child welfare system. However, while data from the Canadian census clearly indicates systemic racism in the Canadian care system, Khan notes that the data relies exclusively on households that have youth in their care at a particular time—and may not be capturing the full picture. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has identified the additional collection of race-based data by children’s aid societies as an important step in addressing systemic discrimination in the Canadian care system. A recent report from the OHRC revealed that 20% of Ontario’s 49 agencies collected no identity-based data; their research also indicated that some agencies that did collect data used dated, racist terms to classify youth. In addition to being discriminatory and problematic, use of these terms also highlights a lack of consistent data standardization across agencies, rendering the data less useful or meaningful.

In December 2017, the Government of Ontario issued a policy directive requiring all children’s aid societies in Ontario operating on the Child Protection Information Network (CPIN) to collect identity-based data. The directive came into effect in February 2018. The directive requires data to be collected consistently according to their Identity-Based Data Standard, and for de-identified and aggregate data (i.e. summary statistics) to be reported to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. However, in our discussion, Khan pointed out a concerning infrastructure loophole in this directive: many children’s aid societies do not currently operate on CPIN; she says it’s a dated piece of software that is only used by a dozen of the province’s agencies. There are also unresolved privacy and concerns with the database, with ransomware attacks targeted at two Ontario Children’s Aid Societies using CPIN in early 2018.   

Although the Ministry of Children and Youth Services expected all societies to be operating on CPIN by the end of the 2014/2015 fiscal year, at that time only five had implemented this IT system. The Ministry has pushed back the target date, anticipating for CPIN to be deployed across all agencies by the end of 2019/2020 fiscal year. With this loophole, most agencies serving youth in care might continue to fail in collecting identity-based information that could support anti-discrimination advocacy efforts within the Ontario care system.

Moreover, for these data to function as a tool for advocacy and accountability, they need to be more than simply collected and reported back to the Ministry of Child and Youth Services.  Our coalition’s data-sharing policy agenda would call for these Ministry data to be externally available to some degree—for instance, amenable data-sharing agreements with researchers or advocacy groups such as YICC, or available as an openly licensed dataset. This would be an important step for keeping the child welfare system accountable to addressing systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

Youth under government care are leaving the system without having their immigration status regularized

Currently, there are young adults—former youth in care—who learn that they are without legal immigration status only after they “age out” of care. This can leave them in a precarious position, restricting or denying access to health services, educational opportunities, financial assistance, and employment.

The government’s failure to regularize the immigration status of refugee children in care also puts them at risk of being deported to a country which they may no longer have connections to—such as in the case of Abdoul Abdi. Abdi came to Canada as a child refugee, and was placed in 31 foster homes over the course of his childhood. Although he was under the care of the Government of Nova Scotia as crown ward for many years, the province’s child welfare system failed to help him secure citizenship. And up until this past July, the 24-year old faced deportation to Somalia, after being detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency at the end of his five year prison sentence. He no longer had any connections in the country, nor did he speak the language.

A 2014 report from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies noted that most agencies did not collect data on the immigration of status of youth in care—making it extremely challenging to know how many youth in the system have unresolved issues around their immigration status. How many youth are entering care without permanent status?  How many are continuing not to have their status regulated while under care of the government? Khan says that although this information is sometimes contained in individual case files, these details have not been aggregated anywhere as a dataset.

The 2018 Ontario policy directive on collection and reporting of identity-based data now requires agencies using CPIN to collect data on citizenship status. Despite the directive’s aforementioned limitations and loopholes, it may be a first step to address this issue within the scope of Ontario. Khan stressed the importance of not only mandating the collection of this information as structured data, but for this information to be reported publicly or made available to organizations like YICC. Increased access to these data could help keep government accountable in their responsibility to regularize the immigration status of crown wards while under government care.  

Youth are being pushed out of the care system early—making them ineligible for postsecondary supports

Across Canadian provinces, there are different service agreements that determine the legal status of youth; these are called wardship orders, and they determine the supports youth are eligible for.  Khan has noted a shift in wardship orders away from crown wards—youth under the legal responsibility of the government until they reach the age of 18, towards temporary wards—youth in care for a specified period of time. She says this shift has rendered many youth leaving the care system ineligible for postsecondary supports and other resources that would otherwise be available to them. These supports can play a critical role in impacting mid- and long-term outcomes of former youth in care, including their overall stability and health.  

Although government funding commitments to supporting youth transitioning out of care have increased, Khan speculates that we may, paradoxically, be seeing a decline in youth who end up receiving these supports.  Could it be that bureaucratic decisions are being skewed to reduce allocation of government resources?

Khan says that access to relevant administrative records could serve as data to test this hypothesis—and could help advocacy groups like YICC answer questions such as: which youth are receiving postsecondary supports or a living stipend—and how many? At what age are youth files being closed—and is there a spike for youth under the age of leaving care? Are these numbers changing over time, and do they reflect changes in government funding commitments?

Where does this all fit into our administrative data policy coalition?

Currently, our data policy coalition focuses on increasing nonprofit access to administrative data. These are data originally collected for operational purposes, repurposed to answer research questions or facilitate better service delivery. Whether the datasets that could support YICC’s advocacy work—such as race-based data—qualify as administrative data is a bit muddy*.

It’s clear that there is a demand for information that could inform evidence-based advocacy. However, our conversation with Arisha highlights that our coalition’s focus on administrative data is part of a much broader conversation on the data needs of Canadian advocacy groups.  We look forward to seeing how our coming interviews with additional coalition members will inform where our initiative fits in this broader data landscape.

What’s next?

We’re in the midst of the research phase for this initiative, documenting the specific ways that Canadian nonprofits and advocacy groups could (or already do) use administrative data in service of their missions. We’re also researching the technical and policy solutions that would be needed to enable these use cases, in order to support this coalition in developing its advocacy agenda. We’re grateful to be working with organizations like YICC and people like Arisha, who have an intimate understanding of the challenges posed to communities facing systematic marginalization—and the impact data could have for addressing these challenges.

Interested in learning more about our administrative data policy coalition?  You can download our issue brief to learn more about administrative data-sharing, and our process brief to read more about our coalition-building and research plan for developing a Canadian policy agenda around this issue.

You can get in touch with Arisha on Twitter @arisha_khan1 or via email at arisha[at]youthincare.ca

Powered by Data is grateful to the Ontario Trillium Foundation for their ongoing support and partnership in developing this initiative. Powered by Data is working in partnership with four co-convening partners to design this coalition: Philanthropic Foundations Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change, and Dr Janet Smylie of Well Living House.

* Note: Identity data stored in CPIN would not be classified as survey data, given that they would be collected as part of broader administrative processes from child welfare agencies. However, unlike most administrative data, which are collected for operational purposes, these data are being collected for to better understand demographic differences in outcomes and barriers in the care system.

Lorraine Chuen