Agencies Challenged As Foster Kids Grow Up and Out of Care
By Suzanne Brown, Internet Reporter
A recent report by a national youth advocacy organization indicates that the foster care system fails to prepare teens, the fastest growing group of children in foster care today, for life outside of the system. As a result, foster children are unable to take control of their own lives while many end up on the streets or in prison.
Paul Pitcoff, Director of Youth Advocacy Center (YAC), the organization that wrote the report, said although independent living programs and transitional services are available to foster children, there is no coordinated effort to address some of the problems teens in foster care face.
According to Pitcoff, there is no incentive for foster care agencies to get, and keep, kids involved in transitional programs. In addition, agencies are not held accountable when children leave the system.
Research from the YAC study shows that former foster care youth often transition out of foster care without an education, sufficient employment to support themselves or the skills to cope with serious health problems. Furthermore, only about 50 percent of foster youth have completed high school or received a GED within two to four years of "aging out" of the system, while 44 percent of former foster youth reported problems obtaining needed medical care most or all of the time. Every foster care youth "ages out" of the system, at the latest, by the age of 21. Most services provided by the foster care system end when the foster youth reaches age 18 and according to the study, 25,000 young people in foster care turn 18 each year.
Too many emerge from care without the skills they need to negotiate in life, Pitcoff said.
Foster Children Have No Safety Net
According to Pitcoff, foster children lack the financial as well as the emotional support that a traditional family offers when children leave home. Instead of providing necessary support and guidance to teens, the system often teaches foster youth how to navigate within a bureaucracy, he said.
"Foster care agencies are not giving them the skills they need to negotiate in life," he added.
Walter McNeil, Executive Director of Challengers Independent Living Program, a Maryland nonprofit organization for foster care teens, said the out of home experience makes foster children different. It is a traumatic experience for a child to be removed from his or her home, he said.
"Foster homes and group homes don't address the emotional needs of the kids," McNeil said. "So, when a kid is ready to leave foster care, he may be 18 chronologically but emotionally he is turning 12."
McNeil, who once worked as a clinical social worker, said many foster children cannot deal with stress and some turn to illegal means of survival. Foster kids are not taught how to cope when they make unproductive choices, he said. Instead, "they act out or use drugs when things get frustrating."
According to McNeil, some independent living programs are not successful because they assume kids are leaving foster care with independent living skills. Many children who transition out of the system are overwhelmed, he said.
Because teens do not have the same issues as younger children in foster care, agencies need to change their approach when working with older youth, Pitcoff said.
"The primary responsibility of the foster care provider is to prepare the teenager for independent living," said Pitcoff, who added that teens need this more than protection and a stable environment.
Changes in agency philosophies and innovative independent living programs, however, may help improve transitional services for former foster youth.
Repaving the Road to Independence
The Challengers Program, unique because of its low staff to client ratio of 2 staff to 3 youth, prepares foster youth with the tools, skills, and resources to face independence, McNeil said. The program provides foster youth with clinical support by addressing their emotional and mental health needs and an education coordinator ensures all clients are enrolled in an academic program. A vocational coordinator teaches clients interviewing skills, shows them how to access online resources to aid in a job search and offers onsite job training. A life skills expert helps clients with basic independent living skills by teaching them how to access community resources.
"We've found that participants referred to us do not have the skills to live independently, so we work to give them those skills," McNeil said.
The program provides an 18 to 24-month curriculum for teens transitioning out of foster care. Discharge planning starts on the first day a client begins the program, McNeil said.
"We are weaning our kids, by working toward their strengths and helping them build on their weaknesses," he said.
While foster care promotes dependency, according to McNeil, Challengers helps kids adjust by allowing them to practice independent living skills in the community with "some support in place."
Since its inception three years ago, all of the six foster children who were enrolled in the program have graduated.
McNeil reports, "All six graduates are doing well in the community."
Unlocking the Door to the Future
Like Challengers, agencies such as Casey Family Services (CFS), a nonprofit child welfare agency in Baltimore, Maryland, are changing their approach to transitional care. CFS prepares teens to be self-sufficient by providing education or vocational training and access to affordable housing.
The organization follows the principle that youth need to be prepared for independent living prior to reaching age 18 said Lee Mullane of CFS.
One challenge to providing the assistance foster kids need before they begin the transition out of care is the lack of resources within foster care agencies. According to Mullane, a "perennial problem" plaguing the child welfare system is the large number of cases for individual social workers.
However, she said, the cost of not offering transitional services is significant in terms of the number of kids who are homeless or incarcerated after they leave the system. Currently, CFS is working with several states around the country to improve foster care programs.
"The services are available but youth need assistance to find a way to those services," Mullane said. "Our program offers tips on budgeting, signing a lease, writing a resume, developing a good work ethic and how to handle a tough situation - a challenge for kids who have been through a traumatic experience."
CFS also offers a mentoring program in which former foster youth advise foster children who are transitioning out of the system. Mullane said the program gives past clients the opportunity to give back to an agency that once helped them.
A second mentoring program, the School to Career Partnership, pairs foster youth with a mentor within a company such as UPS, Home Depot or a local hospital. A youth can take a paid position, gain important work experience and learn the responsibilities that go along with having a job. They are then able to go to their next job interview with a resume that includes some experience, Mullane said.
"I think things are improving but [providing adequate transitional services] is still a big issue that needs a lot of attention," she said.
Paul Pitcoff, Director
Youth Advocacy Center
Walter McNeil, Executive Director
Challenger Independent Living Program
Casey Family Services
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339