Jane Kovarikova standing in front of a window smiling

Photography by Brooke Schaal

Unsung hero: Child welfare advocate Jane Kovarikova

How a former foster child has dedicated her life to improving outcomes for youth

At LocalLove.ca, we want to recognize the unsung heroes whose dedication has made a difference to others. (If there’s someone in your community who is quietly making life better for others, please let us know!) Here’s the courageous and inspiring story of Jane Kovarikova, a former foster child who founded an advocacy group dedicated to reforming Canada’s foster-care system.

When Jane Kovarikova was 14 years old, her foster parent looked her in the eye and said, “Jane, you’re going to fail.”

Though that comment stayed with her, it didn’t break her. “But think of the people who it might have broken,” she says. Instead, that comment inspired her to become part of the solution that aims to fix a system that’s failing many of those it claims to protect. Now, as founder of the Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada, she pushes for evidence-based policy-making in child protection.

Jane Kovarikova looking out a window

Life as a Crown ward

Kovarikova was shuffled around foster homes from ages six to 16. She remembers at least five different homes, though some were temporary placements while her foster parents went on vacation with their biological children. By age 12, she was designated a Crown ward, which means the state is considered your legal parent.

“Generally, foster care is tough on children, because they are rarely given adequate information about what’s happening and what the future holds,” says Kovarikova. “There is a lot of confusion. They feel like an outsider in someone else’s home—sometimes even despite the best efforts of foster parents—and they come to expect that nothing is permanent. When the foster experience comes to its inevitable end, they are left on their own.”

So, at 16, Kovarikova chose to move out on her own, dropping out of high school and relying on a government allowance of $663 per month to survive. “I will always remember that amount because stretching it to raise myself as a young teenager, while also trying to enjoy life, required imagination,” she says.

Fortunately, she had a mentor who helped her see that she had book smarts—and that despite dropping out of high school, she could still apply to community college as a mature student. That turned out to be her pathway to success: She went on to earn a master’s degree in human rights at the London School of Economics and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Ontario.

Jane Kovarikova sitting at a desk writing

From survival to success

For many youth in foster care, the system’s pathways to success look more like pathways to survival, says Kovarikova—like how to avoid being evicted or arrested. That’s why she pitched a ground-breaking research project to the province, in hopes of beating those odds.

Ultimately, very few governments track the children they raise in foster care. Academic studies show outcomes for vulnerable youth remain bleak in adulthood, from unemployment to homelessness, and early parenthood and poor mental health. And these results are identical across 40 years of studies in multiple countries.

But some American jurisdictions have made a simple policy change that requires vulnerable youth to apply to college or university before they can graduate from high school. This simple act boosted enrolment from 11 percent to 45 percent in a single year.

Pushing for real change

It’s an example of how policy change can make an impact; something Kovarikova learned at one of her first jobs. Working for MPP Rod Jackson, she helped develop a bill that would bridge the service gap for 16- and 17-year-olds in need. Prior to that in Ontario, these youth would be redirected to homeless shelters if they needed help, and entirely shut out of supports available to their peers who were already in foster care.

That bill became law in 2018. “By 2018, I was meeting youth at my board meetings at Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions who were voluntarily opting to move in with families instead of roughing it at homeless shelters during these important and formative years of their lives,” says Kovarikova. It also showed her that, although it takes time, legislative change is possible—and can dramatically change lives.

Reform starts with research

Without measuring outcomes after care, it’s hard to know if programs and policies are effective. Kovarikova believes the key to breaking this cycle is evidence-based policy-making. With informed research and effective advocacy, she believes youth who leave the foster system could realize success, not just survival.

“Even though this is a lonely, unstable and intense way to grow up, the homes we originate from often have even greater challenges. So I feel grateful that we live in a country that tries to protect vulnerable children,” she says. “There is no shortage of workers, foster parents and administrators who care deeply and are doing their best. The system design is the root of [the] main problems, and that is why legislative reform is so important to improving child welfare.”

If you have an “unsung hero” in your neighbourhood, don’t keep it a secret! Share their inspiring story with us and the story of how they give back could be featured on Local Love.

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