Maryland Takes a First Step towards Foster Care Independence

Susan Kellam
March 13, 2000

This article first appeared in March 2000.

The first step is always the hardest. To make sure their first steps are in the right direction, about fifty public and private foster care providers in the state of Maryland gathered outside Annapolis on February 28, to explore the new John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.

The Chafee legislation will push states to reconfigure the services they provide adolescents in foster care. "Just because we've been doing it for the past ten years doesn't mean we're doing it right," Patrick Patrong told seminar participants. Patrong is the Independent Living Coordinator for Maryland.

President Clinton signed legislation on December 14 that doubles funding for state Independent Living Programs and—for the first time—provides federal resources to youth ages 18-21 who already have been emancipated from the system.

Patrong organized the recent seminar through the Maryland Department of Human Resources to start people thinking "outside the box" about new ways to prepare children in foster care for living on their own.

Everyone at the seminar had ideas: Susan Loysen, a social worker with Baltimore County, said that the kids themselves should identify someone special to them within the foster care system to keep tabs on them as they move toward independence. Terri Gilyard-Ames from Baltimore City wanted to streamline mental health services to make them more accessible to adolescents. Too often foster kids don't take advantage of what's available to them because they can't decipher the paperwork, she said.

"These older kids have to be accountable to the agency or there's no use helping them," said Trish Frederick, a foster mom in Anne Arundel County who has taken in over 450 kids, many of them teenagers. She explained her "turtle theory," describing how you have to penetrate a hard shell to reach many of these youth.

"Sometimes you can only give so much," Frederick said. Then you have to let go, as she did recently with a 19-year-old young man who wouldn't budge to find a job. When she finally asked him to leave her house, he promptly located employment. "He's found out a lot," she reports: "food is expensive, the price of gas shouldn't be going up, and what doors are open for a free meal."

New program rules also provide resources to younger foster children, though no minimum age is specified. Some of the participants felt that basic life skills training should start at age 12; others thought the training could wait until they're 14, at which point instruction could begin in personal hygiene, using public transportation, sex education, nutrition, job readiness and drop-out prevention.

The full-day seminar included a morning session focused on explaining the new law: Patrong offered the state perspective and overview; Pam Johnson of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the federal perspective. "They need to understand the intent of the law versus the letter of the law," Patrong said.

Some questions haven't been answered yet, like whether the state is liable for youth they're helping under the new law if the youth are no longer wards of the state.

Maryland already uses state money to assist older youth, by keeping them in foster care while they complete high school or college. Many participants were concerned that the new influx of federal dollars for an "after-care" group would force the state to push these older kids out of foster care. Patrong assured them that Maryland will maintain the state program, using the federal dollars only for those who choose to come back for additional services, such as housing or job training.

Much of the brainstorming at this ground-breaking seminar involved ways to provide new services to emancipated youth. Some of the suggestions included developing a pool of landlords in each community who would be willing to rent to these young people. Everyone agreed that more collaborative partnerships are needed, including regional partnerships, because these youth are so transitory. One person suggested the state provide start-up funds for employers who design programs for underemployed youth. Incentives to businesses were a popular theme in general, with several people drawing the comparison to welfare-to-work incentives. And participants said that ways must be found to reach more kids was also stressed.

"The only kids getting into training programs are already skilled," complained Susan Loysen. "They're not the kids I know. The ones I know are getting kicked out of schools. Or they're not high-functioning enough to get into the good programs."

Will the new law help the more troubled kids she sees as a social worker?

"I sure hope so," she answered. "That's why I'm here today."

Patrong intends for there to be many more meetings before any decisions are made. "We are ahead of the game right now," he said. "But we can't slow down. The race has just begun."



Susan Kellam has an extensive 25-year career in journalism and social policy, including editorial positions at Rolling Stone magazine and Congressional Quarterly and as communications director at the American Public Welfare Association. She is currently a free-lance writer.