It’s your 18th birthday and you’re sitting at the dining room table waiting for your mom. She called this meeting, and you’re excited and apprehensive. The possibility of this being something big to mark the day makes sense. But she’s been hinting about changes. You didn’t pay much attention – homework, hanging out with friends, other stuff that was more important. She walks in looking calm and drops a black trash bag on the table in front of you.
“You’re 18 now,” she says. “Legally you’re an adult, so my responsibility for you is finished.”
She points to the large lawn-and leaf bag and says, “You need to pack up your things, give me your house key, and go. I hope you have a nice life.”
You’re stunned and splutter, “You can’t be serious!”
“Yes, I am. I told you this was coming,” she says. “The fact that you didn’t pay attention or prepare is your problem. You’ll figure it out.”
She turns to leave the room. You stand up, grab the trash bag, and shout at her.
“But where am I supposed to go? You can’t DO this. I have a science paper due in three days and, and, and…”
She says in a calm voice, “What you do next is up to you. But if it helps, there’s a youth homeless shelter you can go to in Cincinnati. They might take you in, if they have room.”
“That’s 250 miles from here! What am I supposed to do, walk there?”
Headlong into Adulthood
This stunning scenario plays out all over the United States on a daily basis. However, the dining room is a courtroom, the mom is a judge and you are one of more than 20,000 young people “aging out” of the foster care system every year. The trash bag is real.
“There are counties in Ohio where these kids go to a court hearing, and they’re given a garbage bag to carry their stuff. Sometimes the (county is) kind enough to give them a bus fare to leave,” says Mark Kroner, a retired social worker. “Extending (foster care) to 21 can help … if people are continuously working with them and getting them ready.”
Kroner, a former program director, designed and managed the Independent Living Program for Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati, Ohio. It included classes and individual support to teach foster care youth self-sufficiency skills most kids normally learn from their parents. The program paid for rent, utilities, food and basic home furnishings during this year-long process. The idea was to teach 17-year-olds how to live on their own before emancipation.
Aging out, or emancipation, is when a young person turns 18 and leaves state custody without having been reunited with a birth family or adopted. On their birthday, individuals become legally responsible for their own care, regardless of readiness. Studies focusing on what happens to these young adults, such as ChapinHall research and policy center’s report Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, prove that many of them will become homeless, unemployed, pregnant and end up in prison.
These studies state what social workers know from experience – former foster kids aren’t ready for independent living at 18, according to Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. She likens the research to “learning water cures thirst.”
“We know what works and yet there’s a fixation on innovation, pilot programs, academic studies to tell us what we already know,” she says. “And yet, Chapin Hill just received $7 million to do a study to find out if housing will cure homelessness.”
Some states are doing a decent job of getting some kids ready. Yet the availability and quality of services aren’t regulated by a national standard. The results of those programs show it’s possible to prevent dire outcomes for youth without a permanent family. The child welfare professionals in California, Texas, Tennessee and Hamilton County, Ohio do it every day.
“There is so much variation across states and within states, it’s appalling that one kid gets services because of where she lives, but another kid in the same state doesn’t just because of his location,” White says.
Separate and Unequal
Each state manages its own foster care system, with 25 now offering extended foster care until 21. There are eligibility requirements for the additional three years, which are primarily funded by Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. In 1985, the The Chafee Foster Care Independence Program provided the first federal funds to states to help foster care youth develop skills essential for independent living. The money can be used for just about anything that’s needed – housing, education, mental health counseling.
Ohio delegates nearly all foster care responsibility to counties, resulting in uneven and non-existent self-sufficiency training. In Tennessee, also a county-driven program, the state has taken a strong leadership role making comprehensive services widely available. Youth Villages works in a public/private partnership with the state to help kids identify life goals and then supports them with what’s needed until they reach 21, and frequently beyond.
“The program is very youth-driven. We understand that every young adult we are working with has a very unique set of needs,” says Kristin Landers, clinical director for Partnership Operations. “The work itself is highly individualized.
“If we have a young person who comes to us homeless, we know that is their most acute need. Some of our young people are parents, so we do a lot of work increasing and enhancing their parenting skills. We also do a good bit of work with all young people to increase their social capital and support. We know that once they leave us as a program, being able to have a very wide net of support going forward really increases their chances of maintaining their success.”
Youth Villages provides matching funds from private donors keeps caseloads low – 8-10 per manager allowing lots of one-on-one time – and offers services to some former foster care participants into their mid-20s.
California also has a powerful state commitment that makes their aging out program one of the most comprehensive. Powered by the strong backing of John Burton Advocates for Youth, the state has a “comprehensive range of supportive services,” according to Amy Lemley, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“California created a program called THP+, Transitional Housing Program for Former Foster Youth,” she says. “That’s a comprehensive supportive housing program that provides safe, affordable housing and supportive services.”
Youth can choose to live in a semi-supervised setting, which is structured and all funds go directly to the provider. Or they can choose Supervised Independent Living Placement , which lets them choose their own, approved living arrangement – a shared house with a friend, an apartment, even a dorm. The youth receives the funds and is responsible for making the necessary rental payments.
Both states work with youth on everything from learning to cook to managing a budget. Their current focus is to expand educational opportunities. Tennessee is considering legislation to expand the current tuition programs to include community colleges and vocational school. California already has that resource in place, and is in the process of “retooling” its infrastructure to support the goal of an associate degree or trade certification from a community college or vocational school for all youth who don’t pursue a university education, according to Lemley.
“Our state community college system has thousands of these programs that young people have access to. (They) can move out of the minimum wage into a living wage. At that point, their lifelong economic trajectory has been changed,” she says.
A Community Responsibility
Just as colleges can adapt to support the unique challenges presented by foster care kids and property owners can invest time helping them with their first rental experience, employers have a role to play. Kroner views the rapid rate at which employers are eliminating entry-level jobs as problematic. This makes engagement by employers around this issue crucial.
“We had a summer grant where we could go to an employer and say, ‘We’ll pay their first month’s salary, if you give them a chance to get in the door. And if it works out, you hire them.’ That worked out a number of times. But it was such a small scale.
“Employers have to be really patient and understand that this is a project. The (youth) don’t have social skills. They don’t have instincts (for) what they can and can’t do.”
Larry Burgess, Supervised Independent Living (SIL) coordinator for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, says concerned employers hire a few of his kids, but the need is always greater than the opportunities. Other community resources, such as state employment services, public transportation, free tutoring and adult mentoring, help fill the gaps in his program.
“We’re encouraging the (SIL) provider to teach the young people to use community resources,” he says. “The rate that we’re paying doesn’t allow for a whole lot of casework services but there is some.”
Burgess believes being open and honest with kids about what Texas does and doesn’t do helps them understand that they need to make the most of available resources to succeed. This is why kids in his program begin their transition plan at 14, and staff are in place to guide that process.
“(In) our 6-month court reviews and service reviews for folks 14 and over we’re trying to discuss and help them think about what they want for themselves as they turn 18,” he says. “When they’re 16 we assign a preparation for adult worker. This is the support person they can call, contact for information and assistance.”
Simplistic Isn’t Helpful
No two kids are alike. Some have the cognitive ability to understand and eventually learn needed skills. Others have physical disabilities or mental health issues that will make it virtually impossible to live independently. So what’s the solution?
White says it isn’t coming up with a cookie-cutter developed from the ubiquitous best practices now available. A national standard of care that focuses on the ultimate goal for any successful adult is what’s needed – economic self-sufficiency. This standard is already under consideration, and she hopes foster care providers will support it.
“There’s isn’t a model, there’s only a range of options,” White says. “The best way to make sure a kid can take advantage of a very wide array of options is to build predictability and flexibility into your (approach).
“They need to prepare every single child who enters the system for independence. Even if they’re reunited with their parents, does it matter that you showed them how to set up a checking account and get a job?”
In a practical sense that means predicting potential future needs while meeting current needs. When a 10-year-old enters the system, it’s reasonable to assume she will need a place to live in eight years. Getting in touch with Housing and Urban Development Homeless Assistance programs immediately gives the agency eight years to prepare, says White.
“I’m getting calls when the kid is about 90 days of aging out,” she says. “Why are you asking me 30 days, 90 days before the kid ages out? Would you do that with your own kid? No.”
If that particular child gets adopted, there will always be another child who can use that apartment. This problem of aging isn’t going away because there are too many and complicated contributing factors, according to Kroner. The assumption that reunification with the biological family or adoption – collectively called permanency – is the only solution is dangerous, he says.
“Forever families are not always forever. But if these youth are not learning life skills … they’re made more vulnerable by the mirage of permanency. If that permanency connection disappears then they don’t have any connection and no life skills,” Kroner says.
“There’s a concept called concurrent planning where you actually teach life skills and get them hooked up with somebody. I wish that there were somebody at a higher level that would beat that drum and say, ‘This is not either/or, it’s both.’ These youth need extra help. They need our help; they’re not going to do this on their own.”
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