When Marie Christian grew up in care, there was no fanfare when she turned 18. The file was closed and that was it.
Today, there's a party. A portrait photographer takes pictures, a buffet dinner is served with birthday cake. Afterwards, there's karaoke and dancing in a hall decorated by the CFS workers and volunteers.
So what is there to celebrate about coming of age in the child welfare system?
There's a lot, says Christian, now 33.
"You are strong, resilient, persistent and your potential is sky-high," she told the 15 young men and women who gathered at a recent 18th birthday celebration hosted by Winnipeg Child and Family Services.
It's a special day for any 18-year-old, but even more so for those 'aging out' of the system.
"Every young person needs to have that moment in a really positive spotlight," Christian, the party's MC, said in an interview.
Around 130 children in care turn 18 every year. This past year, 70 of those aging out are on an extension of care to help them transition into adulthood and independence. There are post-secondary tuition waivers and scholarships available to kids who were permanent wards. The birthday party is just the icing on the cake. "This is just part of an overall attempt to do better for our kids in care, particularly as they leave care," service manager Patrick Harrison said. "It's only one day. The other things have more long-lasting implications."
Christian has MCed several CFS coming-of-age parties for kids in care since they began four years ago.
The party is a chance to mark a milestone in their young lives and honour how far they've come. Social workers, foster and forever families get up in front of everyone and talk about the strengths of each of the birthday guests. It's a powerful present.
"Each one of those young people needs a champion -- one person who tells them how much potential they have," said Christian, the co-ordinator of the Manitoba Youth in Care Network's Voices program. It takes a lot of positivity to counter all the negativity associated with being in the child-welfare system.
"There will always be stigma as long as members of the public don't know what it means to be in care, and there are so many factors in a young person coming into care," Christian said.
Three of those young people turning 18 shared their stories of being in care with the Free Press.
The mother of a two-year-old gets up at 6 a.m. every day, bundles up her daughter on a sled and takes four buses from home to daycare to school. And she does it with a smile on her face.
"I want to be a welder," said the slight young woman with a strong determination.
When she was 12, she was taken from her home to a "place of safety" with a cousin. "It didn't seem like I was in care," said Holmes, who still saw her mom after she became a permanent ward. At age 15, Holmes became pregnant. She was adamant about keeping her daughter and learning to be a good mom. She spent time at Villa Rosa before and after her baby was born.
She says she's fortunate to have a cousin who's been a role model and a social worker who "kicked my butt" when it was needed. That worker, Jennifer Cohen, said Holmes is doing extremely well.
"Chantel is parenting in a fishbowl -- everything she does is scrutinized, and that is tough."
Holmes said she's grateful to be a mom. "It's changed me. I'm more mature and think before I do things." When she sees friends doing "stupid things," like getting drunk and going to jail, she knows those things are not in her cards now.
"I love my daughter. I have to do what's best for her."
She plans to finish school at Resources for Adolescent Parents, then learn to be a welder.
"I tried it and I loved it," said Holmes, who sampled several careers through a school program. She plans to take advantage of Red River College's bursary program for students who grew up in the child-welfare system.
Holmes is on an extension of care after turning 18 last month to give her and her daughter more time in a foster home until they're ready to go out on their own.
"I need all the help I can get."
In Grade 9, her future looked grim. She was expected to end her studies, stay home and cook until entering an arranged marriage.
Since kindergarten, the girl from a strict Iraqi home wasn't allowed to go to birthday parties or to play in the park.
"They didn't want me to have a job or go to school. It was an arranged marriage and kids, and that's it." She came into care at age 15.
"I liked it in the group home," Arab said. "I was used to never going out at all."
Now 18, she's finishing Grade 12, working part-time and taking driver's ed. She's joined the naval reserves and plans to see the world -- a world that is now wide open to her.
She's on an extension of care so she can finish high school and is living in Kildonan Common -- an apartment block for young women in care who are coming of age.
"My best friends are here."
Not too long ago, when a kid in care like Ronia turned 18 it was "sayonara," said Andrea Burron, the social worker at Kildonan Common.
"Now we have an opportunity to keep working with them and supporting them towards having a future. We do everything we can to have them succeed."
They have a chance to hone life skills, plan for their education or get a job so they're equipped to be independent, Burron said.
"Having this opportunity still requires a commitment from them," she said. Extensions of care last for up to one year at a time until they turn 21. "They're good for as long as they're doing what they need to be doing."
Arab plans to study business administration at Red River College. As a kid in care, she can apply for a bursary to attend.
"I want to be a big businesswoman with lots of money... to be successful and happy and do all the things I wanted to do when I was younger," she said.
"I don't want kids. Not yet!"
The child-welfare system, she says, saved her life at age 14.
"I didn't think I'd be alive right now," the soft-spoken young woman said.
"I had lots of issues with self-harm and suicidal tendencies." Growing up, she lived with her mom, an aunt and an ailing grandmother. The newcomers from the Philippines struggled and kept to themselves.
"I didn't go to birthday parties or sleepovers. I was so isolated -- I didn't talk to anyone. I felt like my life belonged to someone else."
For a while, she moved in with her dad, but he didn't know how to take care of her, she said. Neither parent spoke much English.
"I was ashamed of my ethnicity -- I wanted to be Caucasian and have a real family like the ones you saw on TV. I didn't feel I had any worth."
"I never thought of going to high school. I never thought I had a future when I first went into foster care."
She was placed with a mom and a dad who had two kids of their own.
"It was a fairy tale to have a real family like everyone else. They were really caring -- you could see they really wanted to help me. They had a really nice house with an extra room. They had jobs and food in the fridge."
Feeling like she belonged took time. So did fitting in at her new high school. "I felt like a walking ghost. Trying to meet friends is hard when you don't feel you're yourself and you don't know who you are."
She switched to an alternative high school.
"At Argyle, everyone's going through the same stuff. We help each other," she said. The isolated girl who didn't think she'd live to see Grade 12 now has a part-time job, a boyfriend and dreams of becoming an architect.
"I didn't think I would make this progress."
She moved into Kildonan Common at age 17 and got an extension of care when she turned 18 to finish high school.
She said she's grateful for the help of a therapist, social workers and especially her foster mother.
"She helped me through my self-harm. She built me up into the person I could be without all those issues holding me down."
Viloria said she wanted to share her story to counter the stigma she sees associated with child welfare.
"People have a bad impression of people in CFS -- like you're a charity case or a basket case," she said. "Actually, it's about getting to where we want to be. We needed supports we couldn't get on our own. They helped me go to a safe place."