Getting it Right the First Time

Michael Peno
June 28, 2013

In May 2013, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative—which works to help youth make successful transitions from foster care to adulthood—launched the Success Beyond 18 national campaign to ensure that young people aging out of the foster care system have supports and opportunities to succeed.  The campaign centers on three goals for states, tribes and other jurisdictions to undertake to improve outcomes for youth:

  • Goal 1: Extend care for young people beyond 18 to at least 21 and “do it right” by ensuring services and supports are offered based on the unique developmental tasks of this life stage and their legal status as adults.

  • Goal 2: Fully promote youth engagement in case planning and decision-making for all young people in foster care age 14 and older.

  • Goal 3: Provide quality oversight that ensures that developmentally appropriate supports and services lead to positive life outcomes for all young people in foster care, beginning no later than age 14 and continuing through extended voluntary care to at least at 21.

Michael Peno, a former foster youth, testified at the campaign’s launch on why these goals were crucial to maintain, and what they mean to him as a former foster youth. The following are his words:

It is so important that we look in detail at the three interrelated policy goals that Success Beyond 18 so carefully chose. If we can achieve these three goals and do it right, young people will have the skills, tools and resources they need to achieve success in all areas.

“Doing it right” means creating flexible service based on the individual needs of each young person. Services cannot be “one size fits all” because young people in foster care all have difference experiences and needs.  

The second goal, having young people lead their life-planning, will help them hone the skills, independence and confidence they will need to steer their lives when they are out of care.  This is critical because there’s no question that when they’re out of care, they will be faced with challenges such as finding work and a place to live.  

I know; I was one of those young people.  I entered foster care at age 10 along with my older brother and sister. While in the system, I was never involved in my case planning. Adults were in charge of planning my future, and I had no control.  Many of my peers in care face the same frustrations today.

At age 19, I left care on my own. I felt like I was already an adult adult and was sick of other people telling me how to live my life. I wanted control. But after I left, found myself lacking the skills and knowledge to support myself.

Being on my own was an experience I needed, part of my growth as a young adult—but I ended up returning to foster care after that seeking the support I needed to re-enter adulthood.

I don’t think foster care would have been so frustrating for me if I was I was given the responsibility to leading my own case planning. If I had that chance I never would have left care in the first place, looking for a way to take control of my life. Furthermore, avoiding that situation and staying in care could have helped me avoid other barriers I am facing now such as aging out of available funding for my education as an older student.

Being engaged in my case planning and decision-making would have given me the chance to get the individualized, specific things I wanted and needed to learn as I looked towards my life after care. I would have asked to learn about financial responsibility to understand the value of a dollar and how to support myself, and even the process of buying a car so I could get myself to my commitments.

Paving My Own Path to Success: A Brave Move

Though I was unprepared for adulthood when I got out of care, I credit some personal skills in my success. I have a strong personality and had a desire to create a better life for myself.  I was determined to succeed so I attempted to form my own opportunities—in some cases just by random chance.

I worked in a restaurant where a frequent customer worked as the director of career services at a local university. I saw my chance. One night, I asked him if he would meet me for dinner to discuss college as an option for me. At the time, I never thought college was for me, nor did I know the first thing about applying for college.

Now, 5 years later, this director remains my mentor, and I am one semester away from a bachelor’s degree. I could not have gotten here without him.

All Deserve a Chance

While I took it upon myself to make a change and found an amazing opportunity through a happenstance chance, I know many of peers aren’t so lucky. My brother, for example, like so many other young people who age out, did not have these opportunities to develop the skills and tools he needed to take the lead. He is currently homeless.

It is unacceptable to leave young people’s futures to random chance and wait for them to walk up to some stranger in a restaurant. We need to change the norm and provide young people aging out of foster care with the opportunities necessary for healthy development. 

Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative’s 2011 research on adolescent brain development tells us that young people’s brains are at a crucial point in their development at age 18, and young people must take healthy risks and lead their life planning in order to develop, learn and grow. 

The research says it all: it is so important that the Success Beyond 18 campaign moves forward because my peers need it now.

If young people are not afforded the opportunities to develop the skills they need to be successful, they could lose the chance of ever developing these skills at a crucial time—like my brother. My brother deserved a chance.

If foster care supports and services are extended based on the needs of individual young people, that will ensure that youth can access the tools and resources they need. Also, if we have quality oversight there will be accountability on child welfare systems to provide these services for young people and it will ensure that every young person is getting what they need to be successful on their own.

All young people deserve a chance.

Michael Peno, Jr. entered the foster care system at age 10. During his time in foster care Michael moved at least once every year, and as a result lacked a consistent education and a great impact on his educational achievements.

Michael is currently a senior at Mitchell College working on his bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in gender studies.  While a full-time student, he serves as an orientation leader and works part time for the department of student activities at the college.

Michael has been a member of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative Young Fellows program since 2011.  The Young Fellows are a group of young people currently or formerly in foster care who have gained knowledge and skills at the Jim Casey Initiative Youth Leadership Institute and spend time identifying, discussing, and sharing solutions to issues that affect young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood.  He has been a Young Fellow since 2011.