Wary Foster Kids Prepare for Independence

Patrick Boyle
April 1, 1999

“It’s really scary being on your own.”

Yarisa is 19 years old and has reason to worry. She’s a foster child with Good Shepherd Services here, but will soon age out of the foster care system — as do more than 20,000 other youth in the U.S. every year. Within two years of aging out, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), less than half of all former foster youth have finished high school or have jobs, and only 20 percent are self-supporting.

But kids like Yarisa are getting more attention than ever. Private agencies and state and county governments around the country are boosting their efforts to prepare foster kids and homeless teens to support themselves, largely by giving them hands-on experience in such tasks as planning and cooking meals, finding jobs, living in their own apartments and paying the utility bills. President Clinton and Congress have weighed in with proposals to increase funding to prepare foster kids for independence, extend financial support after they’ve aged out, and help homeless youth get back on their feet. (See story, page 23.)

“If you give us the resources and the opportunities, we will turn out all right,” a 21-year-old foster youth from Connecticut, Reggie Rollins, told the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on human resources last month. The subcommittee held a hearing on older youth who are leaving foster care. HHS and the National Resource Center for Youth Services are hosting a two-day conference in Nashville, Tenn., this month on transitional and independent living programs. This September in Atlanta, the Florida-based Daniel Memorial Institute will sponsor Growing Pains 1999, the official annual conference of the National Independent Living Association.

Why all the attention? Numbers, for one thing. There are more than 500,000 foster children in the U.S., up from 275,000 in 1985, according to the Child Welfare League of America. The number of foster kids aged 16 and older grew from 62,000 in 1992 to more than 77,000 last year, according to Carol Williams, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau in HHS’s Administration on Children, Youth and Families. A foster child’s chances of being adopted decrease with age, and government foster care support usually ends at ages 18-21, depending on the state. The result: more kids are leaving foster care not because they’ve been adopted by loving families, but because the government says they’re too old to stay.

But many of them are not ready to live on their own. An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison illustrates the struggle. Researcher Mark E. Courtney says the team has interviewed 113 young people who aged out of foster care. Most of them had less than $250 when they were discharged. Twelve-to-18 months after discharge, only six out of 10 were working. The average salary for those employed was slightly more than full time minimum wage. Forty-four percent had been homeless, incarcerated or on public assistance since emancipation.

No Cold Turkey

Youth advocates are finally reaching policymakers with the message that they cannot expect foster kids to survive on their own somewhere between 18 and 21. “How many kids from middle or upper middle class are out on their own at 18?” says Harriet Mauer, director of social services overseeing residential care at Good Shepherd. “We ask more of our fragile, vulnerable foster children than we would ask of our own kids. We expect them [foster kids] to be out on their own cold turkey.”

Independent living (IL) and transitional living (TL) programs are designed to help youth become self-sufficient. Although the terms mean different things at different agencies, they are technically distinct. HHS’s $70 million-a-year Independent Living Program, authorized by title IV-E of the Social Security Act, offers services to foster children age 16 or older. The money is used for training in life skills such as budgeting and finding jobs, helping to get high school diplomas, and coordinating social services. HHS’s $15 million-a-year Transitional Living Program, authorized by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, provides grants to community-based organizations for residential care, life skills training and other support for homeless youth age 16-21 who are not in the custody of state child welfare systems. This includes youth discharged from foster care.

Youth workers who deal with foster and homeless kids say the funding and scope of these programs are insufficient. They say, for example, that 16 is too late to start life skills training; habits involving work, responsibility and interpersonal skills must be instilled years earlier, they say, and Congress appears to be listening. “We’re doing these kids a tremendous disservice by not focusing on these life skills programs at 14,” Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), chair of the human resources subcommittee, said at last month’s hearing.

Life skills training, however, can only go so far. If classroom training is all that kids get, “they’re going to end up in homeless shelters or in court,” says Susan Evans, senior vice president of treatment services for Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, an Ohio-based nonprofit that provides treatment services to 1,100 foster kids in South Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma and five other states.

Unfortunately, Courtney wrote in his subcommittee testimony, “most services focus on education about independent living skills while providing limited if any hands-on experiences.” California’s Community College Foundation (CCF), for instance, provides classroom IL training to foster kids in more than 50 counties, but sees that training as a first step to be backed up with hands-on experiences in foster homes. “It’s a wake-up call for kids, to give them an idea of what they’re facing,” says vice president Michael Olenick.

That’s why IL programs have been shifting from just telling youth about self-sufficiency to giving them slices of the experience. “The independent living challenge is to become a successful transition into community living, so that by the time of discharge they’re established in the job, the school, the housing,” says Karoline Gould, director of the Independent Living Skills Center, a resource and training center in New York City.

Learning and Working

While IL programs can encompass an infinite number of issues, agencies are focusing on education, employment, and actually living on your own.

“If you can’t read, you have a hard time with jobs,” Olenick says. “The first priority we should have is to get the kids through high school.”

The CCF gives 14-year-old foster kids aptitude tests to determine their academic strengths and weaknesses, and tutors more than 300 of them every year. Florida and Texas offer their foster kids free tuition at state colleges and universities. According to the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, 325 former foster kids used the tuition waiver in the 1997-98 academic year.

In tandem with education, agencies are focusing on getting foster kids ready for work; some require them to have jobs. “What we feel is absolutely essential down the road is job readiness,” says Mauer of Good Shepherd. “They may have the best insight in the world, but if they can’t go out there and get a job, we’ve failed them.”

Good Shepherd’s St. Helena’s home for girls is nestled in a former convent on Manhattan’s west side, just steps from an intersection where everyone moves at a typical New York pace: pedestrians zipping in and out of convenience shops, drivers trying to get home from work, and backpack-laden students from a Fordham University campus across the street. Each of the 21 girls inside has a job, is looking for one, or in the case of younger girls (such as age 14) is learning job-related skills. “Work is becoming the norm,” Mauer says.

In Los Angeles, the county board of supervisors has ordered that five percent of all unfilled entry-level positions go to youth emancipating from foster care, while the county Department of Children and Family Services runs jobs fairs for older foster youth.

On Their Own

But no youth knows if he’s ready for independent living until he moves out of his foster home and lives in the adult school of hard knocks. A growing number of agencies are moving older foster kids into apartments or houses as a trial run for aging out. The kids might live alone, as in Ohio’s Lighthouse Youth Services, or in groups, as in California’s Boys Republic.

The federal IL Program, however, does not fund room and board, as Robin Nixon, director of Youth Services at the Child Welfare League of America, told the subcommittee. “You need to put housing out front” as a funding priority, she said. Some states use their own money. Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families spends more than $10 million on independent living programs, with only $750,000 from the federal IL Program, says Adolescent Services Coordinator Bill Pinto. The state funding includes housing foster kids over 18 who are completing their education.

“When Reggie [Rollins] turned 21, we did not say, ‘You’re on your own now, good luck,’” Pinto says. “Reggie continues to live in a subsidized apartment and will complete his [college] education this year.”

At Good Shepherd, Yarisa lives in an apartment with two other foster girls and works at the Gap. She pays about half her income in rent to the agency. The money is saved and will be returned to her when she’s ready to move out on her own.

Youth advocates such as Nixon are pressing Washington to help fund a continuum of housing options whereby foster children go from IL training in a foster home, to an apartment or small group house while still in foster care, to a transitional home as they age out. As part of that continuum, Nixon says, foster kids need the same safety net that middle class kids routinely use: moving back home if jobs or living arrangements don’t work out. At Home of the Innocents in Louisville, Ky., youth who try living in one of the agency’s two-bedroom apartments can move back to a group cottage or dorm if they find they’re not ready for independent living.

Clinton’s budget proposal and Rep. Cardin’s legislation must go through Washington’s legislative meat grinder. Foster care advocates believe each stands a chance of passing in some form. “The interest has been bipartisan,” Nixon says.

“There’s a good chance that these things can be funded” if Congress retains the current rate of domestic discretionary spending, says Carmen Delgado Votaw, senior vice president for public policy at the D.C.-based Alliance for Children and Families — noting that that’s a big “if.”

So more help may be on the way for older foster kids like Yarisa. With no family to fall back on, the future looks daunting even for those who are most prepared.

“What about when I’m 21?” Yarisa wonders. “Where am I gonna go? Who’s gonna be there for me?”

Sidebars:

Wary Foster Kids Prepare for Independence: Help On the Way?

Wary Foster Kids Prepare for Independence: Newspapers For Foster Kids


Boyle, Patrick. "Wary Foster Kids Prepare for Independence." Youth Today, April 1999, p. 20.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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Comments

<p>How about a pen pal service for the foster kids? I am willing to be one! It must be hard to go out into the world without family :_ I would definetly be there in words and letters for someone. Can I be of any assistance?<br /><br />Most sincerely,</p>
<p><br />Jessica Rainey</p>
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