When Andi Wiseman heard the B.C. government would waive post-secondary tuition for even more foster kids, she felt bittersweet.
As a former foster kid herself, Wiseman understands first-hand the uphill battles facing youth in care when they blow out their 19th birthday candles. They need to find a place to live, find a stable job and start paying bills all on their own, while often dealing with mental health issues and other after effects of childhood trauma.
More than 1,000 former youth in government care have taken advantage of B.C.’s post-secondary tuition waiver program since it began in 2017. About a year ago, the eligible age threshold was increased from 26 years old to 27.
But Wiseman, now 47, says she can’t help but remember how hard it was to get by as someone who aged out of the system without that financial support, and how she still deals with the outcomes of decisions she made as a result. Her two choices to deal with $25,000 in student loans? Ride the minimum-payment hamster wheel or declare bankruptcy.
“I’ve never been able to get in good standing with the payments, so I have accrued about $11,000 in interest,” Wiseman said.
Her case illustrates what life is like now for many of B.C.’s former foster kids who didn’t get such support, and who are trying to stay afloat under debt, low-paying jobs, legal costs and stigma.
‘I got a birthday card and a welfare cheque’
Growing up in a foster home in the Lower Mainland, Wiseman had a baby when she was just 16. Her transition out of care was a cliff drop.
“I got a birthday card and a welfare cheque,” she told Black Press Media during a late August interview in Vancouver. “Also, I lost [custody of] my 18-month-old daughter.”
Wiseman’s foster mother adopted Wiseman’s baby, fast-tracking the adoption through a private lawyer.
“It was finalized in less than a year and then she took my daughter and left Vancouver without telling me. They were just gone, one day.”
That was in 1992. “I was devastated. Predictably, I drank and drugged pretty hard for a year before going into treatment. Then at 21, I was just back to being homeless.”
Her best chance of avoiding homelessness long-term, she said, was to enter into an unhealthy relationship. Her second daughter was born in 2000, when she was 27 years old.
“She was the motivation that I needed to leave the relationship, and it’s at that time I tried to return to school.”
With no child support, Wiseman relied on welfare but was determined to get an education and create better prospects for herself and her child. At the time, the welfare benefit for single parents with one child was $960 per month. Wiseman said it was barely enough to cover food costs, rent and other basic needs.
“I did a bunch of appeals with welfare, just asking for assistance to pay my rent and feed my child so I could go to school – at the time I wanted to get a university degree,” she said. “The appeals went nowhere.”
With no other options, she got a student loan from the federal government in 2002.
Wiseman didn’t have the family support or financial means to look after a toddler while studying full-time, so she transferred to a private certificate program after one semester at Simon Fraser University. She earned two counselling diplomas in 2004.
No financial security blanket made a contentious custody battle over her second daughter in 2006 all the more difficult. She didn’t qualify for legal aid, and had to represent herself in court.
“I was working 45 hours a week, raising a five-year-old, and staying up all night reading law.”
|Now 47, with colourful tattoos and a vibrant personality, Andi Wiseman has taken her first-hand experiences in the foster care system to use when helping the most vulnerable in Vancouver. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)|
She ended up losing sole custody of her daughter and was ordered by the judge not to leave Vancouver, despite being hired for a higher-ranking position with a company in Edmonton.
Today, she sports bright, colourful tattoos and a warm smile. Her resume includes a number of grassroots non-profit organizations that serve vulnerable women and youth in the Lower Mainland.
Her lived experiences of social and systemic adversities within the foster care and welfare systems have given her a unique expertise – and earned her respect in her field, where she is known for her fierce passion for social justice work.
But certain professional gains remain out of reach because she does not have a university degree.
“That’s kept my pay grade really, really low,” she said. “The differential between my experience and… my education has affected absolutely everything since earning my diplomas in terms of my financial security, which is to say that I actually haven’t had any.”
Low wages, nominal and irregular child support have always forced her to prioritize day-to-day survival over her own debt management, she said.
Age cut-off to access tuition waiver program ‘arbitrary,’ says student
In its second year, the potential of the tuition waiver program can be seen best through former foster kids like Caitlyn Mainer, 20, who is a notable success story.
She was one of a dozen former youth in care who were recognized by advocates and ministerial officials in October during a celebration at Zajac Ranch in rural Maple Ridge for the tuition waiver program having funded the post-secondary education of 1,119 kids.
Mainer is in her third year at Douglas College in New Westminster, and in her first year of the child and youth counselling program. She also works with at-risk youth and is considering a master’s degree after she graduates.
|Caitlyn Mainer, 20, was one of a dozen former youth in care celebrated in October at Zajac Ranch in Maple Ridge, B.C., for her efforts to pursue post-secondary school. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)|
The program’s launch was one of humble beginnings, with Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo the first to waive tuition for young people who had aged out of government care, up to the age of 25, back in 2013.
Four years later, the NDP government required all public post-secondary schools and union trades schools to do the same and raised the age threshold to 26 years – the average age Canadians graduate with a bachelor’s degree, according to Statistics Canada. In 2018, the province increased the age cut-off to 27 years.
Mainer is among many in the child welfare field who believe the age cap should be increased to 30 or eliminated altogether to make a real dent in reducing the cycle of intergenerational trauma and poverty.
“There’s too many variables in life that the age of 27 is so arbitrary, it doesn’t mean anything,” Mainer said. “So just eliminating the cap would be really beneficial and decrease the number of kids in care.”
In a phone interview, Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark was asked multiple times what factors led the government to arrive at the age of 27.
“I appreciate the question, but I’m going to go back to the fact we have this program because our NDP government sees the value of young people having the opportunity,” Mark said.
“The age is certainly an area that has been highlighted, but I don’t think there is an understanding of the breadth of young people that are now eligible to access this program.”
A former foster child herself who did post-secondary and adopted her brother to keep him out of care, Mark has been a pivotal figure in the child welfare field since entering politics in 2016 and becoming B.C.’s first female First Nations MLA a year later.
She declined to comment on whether the province would increase the age of eligibility for tuition waivers.
|Andi Wiseman, 47, says she is happy that the next generation of foster kids will have a chance at post-secondary education, but can’t help and wish that such an opportunity was available to her. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)|
Mainer said the government should also remove financial barriers so that those with mental health issues or who need childcare, or who aren’t suited to the structure of a four-year degree, can still thrive.
For those who are eligible for the program, their future is a bright one: Men in B.C. with a bachelor’s degree earn 30 per cent more than those with a high school diploma, while their women counterparts earn 38 per cent more, Statistics Canada data shows.
As for Wiseman, she can’t help but imagine how a better education might have changed her life. She wishes a similar program could help her pay off her thousands in student loans, but knows it’s an unlikely pipe dream.
“I’m accepting permanent poverty until I die either way.”
This story was produced as part of Spotlight: Child Welfare — a collaborative journalism project that aims to deepen reporting on B.C.’s child-welfare system. It was originally published by Black Press Media. Tell us what you think about the story.