Ronda Merrill-Parkin

Abandoned again: the pain of aging out

A Surrey mother shares the trauma of growing up in foster and group homes, only to be suddenly cut off support

Torn from her home at the age of two, her life was now taking a dark and tragic turn.

Ronda Merrill-Parkin, now 26, sits in her comfortable basement suite in Newton and recounts the gloomy path that brought her to where she is today.

Her biological parents, an addicted mother and overworked father, could no longer manage care for their 10 children.

The ministry in charge of child care in Alberta was called and seized them, placing them all in foster care.

Her biological parents fought, unsuccessfully, to get the kids back.

Suffering unspeakable abuse in the years that followed, Ronda was put into a group home at the tender age of 12, where she was introduced to people familiar with the street life.

Drugs, particularly crystal meth, followed.

At 17, she had a child.

And then another.

Thanks to her patchwork of upbringing, birth control was not in her vocabulary.

“I was never taught,” she says. “We never had that talk.”

In Alberta, kids “age out” of provincial care at 18.

Time slowed when she learned she was on her own. All financial, emotional and social support was gone.

“I felt really lost, and I was afraid,” she says. “I had my son.”

Notions of child care, support, both financial and emotional, as well as how to find housing, were all foreign to her.

She ventured out and found any social service agency that might help.

She gave up her sons to a family member who offered a hand in bringing them up.

To turn her life around she knew the work started within, so she got clean, and sought a proper medical workup.

She was re-treated for ADHD, which likely caused the self-medicating with drugs.

She is now three years clean and sober, is a couple of courses away from completing Grade 12. From there she will be heading to Douglas College to take Child and Youth Care.

Ronda is the exception.

As a First Nations person aging out of foster care, the odds are good she would end up homeless, in jail or a graveyard.

In Surrey, where one in four people are under 19, and three per cent of the population has been in foster care, this is particularly problematic here.

For somebody of First Nations, that figure jumps to a staggering 17 per cent who have been in government care.

Each year, there are about 60 kids per year in Surrey being set adrift when the reach 19 because of aging out.

It has far-reaching and detrimental effects on the kids, and on the social service network.

Those who age out are far over-represented among this city’s homeless, the under paid and those heading through the court system, according to a report titled Youth Aging Out of Care, by the McCreary Centre Society and commissioned by the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition.

While increasing numbers of children are living with their parents until their late 20s, people aging out of care are severed from support long before they feel ready.

“Surrey youth who had transitioned out of care were often surprised how abruptly they had been cut off from services and supports that they had assumed might continue in some form after their 19th birthday,” the report says. “They spoke of gratitude to individual workers and agencies that had offered them some support, even when they were not funded to do so.”

Further challenges face these youth, the report finds.

A study out of the United Kingdom looking at mental illness in people who age out of care found that only three per cent met criteria for successful life outcomes.

And a full 64 per cent met criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.

The U.K. study recommended that the weaning off of government care should occur at a point in life not so “risky” as the age of transition into adulthood.

“Findings among B.C. youth support those of studies in the U.K., Austrialia and other parts of North America,” the McCreary Centre study found.

Other parts of the world extend care beyond 19 if it is determined there is a need for that youth.

There are costs of inaction.

A young person leaving care in Canada will earn $326,000 less over their lifetime than those who have been in care, the report finds.

That represents a loss of more than $126,000 in lower tax revenues because of the disparity.

A cost benefit analysis conducted in Ontario has found for every dollar spent, taxpayers save $1.36 over a person’s lifetime.

That isn’t taking into account the toll on the quality of life for those individuals affected.

For Ronda, it hasn’t been easy, and may well have been impossible without huge support from social service providers.

She is a rarity, service providers say. Not only has she beaten the odds, but she is using the experiences of her painful upbringing to help others.

And her life, as a result, has changed dramatically.

“I feel as though I have more strength, I feel a lot more proud,” Ronda says.