Shortly after her 18th birthday, Cindy (not her real name) left her group home in the Bronx to live with her mother. Although under New York laws she could have stayed in the foster care system until she turned 21, Cindy had lived in foster homes and group homes for nearly six years, and she was eager to move on. Still, she was apprehensive about living at home again. Her fears were well-founded. Cindy and her mother argued and she soon found herself on the street. Cindy has now been homeless for several months, bouncing between Covenant House and her boyfriend’s apartment. Her boyfriend sometimes hits her, but she feels she can’t leave him because she depends on him for survival – food, shelter, even emotional support. She doesn’t see any way out.
I know Cindy from Foster Care Youth United, a magazine by and for teenagers in foster care, which I edit. When I first started working at the magazine, I had read all the studies about what happens to young adults once they become too old for foster care. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in some areas of the country as many as 60 percent of homeless people have a foster care history. Many never complete high school and go on welfare. About one-quarter of the men end up incarcerated. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that only one in six of the teens they tracked who had recently left care was completely self-supporting.
But I felt certain that the kids I worked with would be that one in six. My writers are gutsy, with goals, hopes and lots of opinions. Like all foster youth, they’d gone through a lot – abuse, neglect, a series of foster placements gone awry – but they had so much motivation, they seemed destined to defy the dire statistics about former foster youth.
And yet, as I watched them “age out” of the foster care system, I began to realize just how unprepared even the most motivated foster kids are for independent living. Many leave the system without jobs, stable homes, savings or people they can count on. Even those like Cindy, who initially return to their biological families, often find themselves unexpectedly alone.
“A lot of people say most foster kids go back home,” says Mark Kroner, director of Lighthouse Services, a private nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, Ohio. “What they don’t say is that most people get kicked out of that home.” Kroner and others who work with this population say that what foster teens need is actual experience living on their own, finding and holding down jobs and budgeting money. Though some private programs have been around a while – Lighthouse has been housing teens in their own apartments since 1981 – the federal government is just beginning to recognize that teens who leave foster care need more support (see “Fostering Independence”). All that most foster teens receive is classes in living skills, such as how to cook or balance a checkbook, plus a modest housing stipend and a small cash grant when they leave care.
Lighthouse Youth Services is one of a handful of innovative programs across the country that assists youth in the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency by providing them with real-life experience and support that teaches them to think like adults. These programs are built upon the notion that teaching kids living skills without the experience of living on their own is like teaching driver’s education without a car. “We expect our youth to make a lot of mistakes until they get it right,” says Kroner.
Many of the programs that address the needs of young people aging out of foster care are delivered through service-oriented community-based organizations. But a few community development corporations whose primary focus is housing are beginning to turn their attention to this population as well (see “Finding Common Ground”).
Adjusting to the Real World
The ideal program for foster teens leaving the system would be multifaceted, helping them obtain housing, living skills, job training and emotional support, says Dorothy Ansell, assistant director of the National Resource Center for Youth Services in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, most youth leaving foster care can call a toll-free number for service referrals. But there, as elsewhere in the country, most programs have a specialty.
Lighthouse focuses on housing and provides apartments owned by private landlords. Teens who are close to aging out are referred to the program by county children’s services and stay about six months, often until high school graduation. Almost all of the teens interviewed are accepted; the few who don’t make the cut are those who can’t function independently. The program, which is largely funded by a local tax levy, currently serves about 70 teenagers.
In addition to providing apartments, Lighthouse pays security deposits, rent, utilities, phone bills and furnishings, and allots each youth a weekly allowance for food, part of which goes into savings. Counselors have a caseload of about 10 clients, and check in weekly. They provide assistance in obtaining GEDs, applying for college and finding apartments when clients leave care. But, Kroner says, a counselor’s biggest job is helping young people understand what it takes to live alone.
“We’re helping kids understand the world through a landlord’s eyes,” says Kroner. “A lot really think there’s another system after this that will take care of them, and it’s our job to make them think that’s not really the case. They think you just get a place to live ’cause you’re in foster care. But landlords want rent and no problems.”
Inevitably, many teens in the program do cause problems. They might invite friends to live with them or spend all their food money on clothing; but instead of becoming homeless, they get help. Lighthouse owns several group homes, foster homes and shelter facilities for youth. If teens lose their apartments, they are moved to a more structured setting before trying again.
There are several similar, solid housing programs for older foster teens throughout the country. But Lighthouse differs from most of these programs by giving participants the option of staying put after they leave care; if the landlord agrees, they can take over the lease. Kroner says that about a third of the teens at Lighthouse take over the lease, and many others enter low-income housing or move in with relatives or friends. But, Kroner says, some “go AWOL and just disappear” from their apartments.
Lighthouse’s privately owned apartments are scattered throughout Cincinnati, unlike most residential programs, which house all clients in the same buildings or with roommates. That way, youth must own up to their own issues. “If they run out of food, or throw a wild party that gets them in trouble, they can’t blame it on their roommates,” says Kroner. He cites the work of Dr. Edmund Mech, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana, whose studies found that youth in scattered-site apartments develop better life skills than youth housed with peers.
Leah McBride agrees. After years in foster homes, group homes, shelters and a children’s psychiatric ward, she entered the Lighthouse program. “I don’t like to use the word ‘institutionalized,’ but pretty much that’s what I was,” says McBride. Living in a Lighthouse apartment at 18 gave McBride her first taste of living independently. It also showed her that, although she was no longer in a foster home or group home, her world hadn’t become completely rosy. “I learned that when you do well, good things are going your way, but you’re still going to have struggles in the real world,” she says. “If you don’t budget your money you can’t pay your rent. Honey, I still cut coupons to this day.”
McBride, now 28, has worked at Lighthouse and as a caseworker for mentally ill adults and is clearly one of Lighthouse’s success stories. “I was different because I knew I had to make it in that program or I would have been homeless,” she says, adding that many kids at Lighthouse don’t seem to understand that. “But sometimes it’ll just take one really major incident where a kid is almost kicked out of the program and then it’s like they realize how blessed they are to be in the position they are in. Sometimes they will say, ‘You know what, I’m going to cut the crap and do what I need to do.’ You always need to go out and bump your head and learn for yourself.”
Mentors – and Work – Matter
One study of a housing program for foster teens in Southern California found that participants’ mental health declined after leaving foster care and living alone for the first time. Many former foster teens become depressed and struggle with loneliness as they attempt to become self-sufficient without the safety net of a caring family.
Forging connections with adults who will stick with them through the ups and downs of growing up becomes a necessary survival skill. “The system needs to pay a lot more attention to connections with adults,” says Steve Cohen, former staff director of the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “No one at age 19, 20 or 21 can live without adults.”
The Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel has suggested that agencies should place more teens in foster homes, where they might find a parental figure who will help them even after they’ve left foster care. Other child welfare systems are forming mentoring programs for teens.
Nan Dale, president of The Children’s Village, a private agency located in a suburb of New York City, says it’s important that mentors are paid and professionally trained “to work with an in-your-face adolescent that may not want this kind of adult person in their life.” The Children’s Village operates the Work Appreciation for Youth (WAY) Scholarship program, which helps participants obtain work and save money for their education, and provides matching contributions of up to $500 a year. WAY targets the youth most likely to crash after they leave foster care – young men who live at The Children’s Village’s highly supervised “residential treatment centers” because their behavior isn’t manageable anywhere else. They come from some of the most horrific places a kid can be: juvenile detention centers, psychiatric hospitals and foster placements gone awry.
Prospective WAY Scholars must apply for the program, so that participation is their choice. Applicants must have at least a C average and experience in a campus-run job. “We set up work sites so that kids have work experience in a controlled environment, where they can make mistakes under trained youth professionals,” says Arthur Donowski of The Children’s Village, who helps other agencies launch their own WAY programs. “Instead of your first part-time job being flipping burgers, where if you screw up you get fired, in our environment, you do get fired, but you also get counseling. All the rough edges get worked out so that your first work experience is a successful one, not a negative.”
Most kids who apply to become WAY scholars get in. Participants must sign a contract promising to always turn to their mentor, no matter what kind of trouble they get in. If the young person won’t cooperate, it is the mentor’s job to find him. The mentors work with the young men for five years after they enter the program, no matter what they do during that time; it could involve visiting a youth in jail, or tracking him down through friends in his old neighborhood. Almost always, says WAY mentor Nick Stewart, youth who have been out of touch with their mentors are relieved to be found.
Many teens in foster care have had no steady adults in their lives, explains Stewart, and having an adult with high expectations of them, who also provides unconditional support, teaches these teens how to build relationships with adults.
“They’re used to this rotating paternal guidance in their life; that’s what you’re trying to break,” says Stewart. “You’re trying to show them that someone will come into their life and be consistent.”
Recently, the Child Welfare League of America published a study that examined the records of 66 graduates of the program, virtually all from poor New York City neighborhoods, classified as special education students and considered to be highly troubled. Researchers only tracked participants who remained in the program for more than two years, leaving out the one in five who dropped out before then; indeed, more than one-third of that group ended up incarcerated. Even so, the study suggests that with the right kind of support, high-risk youth really can have a chance in the world.
Fifteen years later, all 66 had low rates of criminality compared with other youths, including a group of The Children’s Village clients who were given independent living information in the mail and support over the phone. The study was able to track down and interview 39 of the 66 alumni; of that group, 81 percent were working and earning an average of $23,000 a year.
WAY Scholar David, 18, didn’t think he’d be alive now. He remembers “wilding out” and breaking a staff member’s leg the first night he arrived at The Children’s Village six years ago. Now he looks back on the jobs he held as a turning point for his self-perception. He worked at the Village store, did dog training and even sold ices around the campus, where he quickly became known. Not long after, David’s supervisor encouraged him to become a WAY Scholar. He praises the program, and especially his mentor, who helped him land a $500 scholarship for college. “She’s mad cool,” he said. “She’s more like a momma, auntie, anything. She’ll fight for me.”
Even with job training and adult support, it can be difficult for former foster youth to secure stable work. The School-to-Career Partnership is one of the few programs nationwide that is geared to their job needs. The program was launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the United Parcel Service (UPS) to help former foster youth get job interviews with UPS. Teens are trained for job interviews and learn the skills necessary for holding down a job. Participants who successfully complete the three-week training interview with UPS for a part-time position. If hired, they receive $8.50 to $9.50 an hour, on-the-job support, tuition reimbursement of up to $5,000 a year and medical benefits.
The program is relatively new – it began in Baltimore in 1997 but has since been replicated in eight cities across the country and currently has 233 participants nationwide. Casey is expanding the program to include more companies, including the Marriott Hotel, Home Depot and Bank of America.
These programs are a good start; teens in foster care need more like them. As they approach independence, young men and women are often so excited to leave foster care that they assume living on their own will be easy. Many are angry at the foster care system and eager to leave it behind; others are so hopeful that returning to their families will work out that they form no back-up plan. If their parents kick them out, they face homelessness. Too often, agencies lose track of these teens or don’t want to take responsibility for them.
Cindy, my writer, attended life skills classes but still underestimated the dangers of leaving foster care. She was so tired of living in a group home that she didn’t consider just how difficult it would be on her own. By the time her mother kicked her out of the house, it was too late for her to return to her foster care agency.
No young adult should be allowed to leave foster care without a place to live and a way to support themselves. Agencies need to match teens with supportive adults and provide independent living classes that give real experience in living alone, holding down a job, budgeting money and forging relationships with adults. Teens need a chance to mess up before it’s essential that they get it right. If they could take a few steps towards self-sufficiency with the safety net of an agency, more would be prepared for what lies ahead after they leave the foster care system.