Imagine being 18 years old and completely on your own. No family. No support system. You have no credit history, so renting an apartment is virtually impossible. You haven’t completed high school or earned a GED, so college or a vocational school is out of the question. Even if they were an option, you don’t have the money to pay for school and no one to help you through the daunting application and financial aid processes. You’ve had no training in how to apply for, dress for or interview for a job. Would you make it?
This is the situation facing the more than 26,000 children who age out of foster care nationally each year. One out of five will become homeless after age 18. One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving the foster care system. Only 58 percent will graduate high school. Fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25.
“They didn’t end up in this system because of their own problems,” said Dr. Laura Boyd, national public policy director for the Foster Family-based Treatment Association. “We haven’t figured out a way to support and engage these 26,000 who age out. Parental support makes a difference. If that’s true for kids who haven’t experienced trauma, how can we imagine these [foster] kids being successful?”
Boyd, who holds a PhD, jokes that it required an advances degree to help her granddaughter, whom she’s raising, apply for college. Her own hard work during the process brought to light even more what she’s been passionately preaching for years: “What do these kids do who not only don’t have support, but don’t have an invested and involved family?”
Preparing foster children for independence
As of Sept. 1, 2015, there are 9,397 children in Oklahoma in out-of-home care. Seventeen percent of those are ages 13 to 17. There are 91 children in custody who will turn 18 by the end of the year; eight have the case plan goal of adoption or preparation for adoption, three have a plan for guardianship and 18 for reuniting with their biological families. That leaves 63 percent who most likely will not be reunited with biological families or adopted before turning 18.
“We believe so strongly that children need families,” said Holly Towers, executive director of Lilyfield Christian Adoption and Foster Care. “But we know there are so many kids who age out of the system without going home to their biological families or being adopted. This leaves these youth really on their own at age 18 and the community struggles to serve them well.”
In Oklahoma, when a child in foster care turns 16, he or she is automatically enrolled in the Oklahoma Department of Human Service’s independent living assessment program, which strives to prepare foster kids for a life on their own. Jennifer Boyer, programs supervisor for the OKDHS Independent Living program, said the key is not just helping these kids make a plan for what they want to do, but more importantly helping them identify permanent connections they can rely on.
Thanks to federal funding, OKDHS offers a variety of programs and assistance for children aging out of the foster care system. If a child hasn’t yet earned a GED upon turning 18, he or she can sign back into voluntary foster care to complete it as long as they have a foster care placement willing to keep them. OKDHS also allows kids over 18 to stay in care for the summer months between high school graduation and the start of vocational school or college. Financial aid and tuition waivers are available for state-funded colleges. Foster children are eligible for Medicaid until age 26 and OKDHS has funds available to help with medical needs like contacts or dental work that might not be covered.
Along with the National Resource Center for Youth Services, OKDHS hosts seminars throughout the year for foster children to learn about the resources available to them as they age out and to meet other youth in care.
“It’s really important to help them develop relationships and meet other youth in their same situation,” said Boyer. “They understand where each other is coming from.”
Part of OKDHS’s Road to Independence program, a brand new partnership with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, seeks to reduce homelessness among former foster children by setting aside a certain number of housing vouchers for them. At age 17.5, OKDHS employees like Boyer will work with foster teens to find landlords that will accept those vouchers.
“We know there’s not enough housing for them,” said Boyer. “And they don’t have anyone to go live with or step in and assist them.”
Even with the programs and resources available, problems remain. In addition to successfully communicating with foster children what their options are after care, it’s also been difficult to convince them to take advantage of those resources.
“If a kid has no control over what’s happening in his life until age 18, and then he’s told he can walk, he will,” said Don Batson, president and CEO of Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care for Children and Youth.
Like any child rebelling against authority, Boyd calls foster kids’ desire to get away from the state’s care “normal development.” But that leaves a void when they don’t know how to continue the services that could be available to them. Most have no idea how to set up a bank account or go grocery shopping; some don’t have driver’s licenses. Many end up couch surfing or homeless.
OKDHS provides each foster child aging out with a helpline phone number and a case manager they can call at anytime for assistance for just about anything, including a month’s rent or help with car repairs. OKDHS posts that same helpline number at local homeless shelters and community service partners in hopes of reaching former foster children who need help. Boyer said they often hear from former foster youth a year or two after aging out when they realize they need help.
While Boyd recognizes the state and its various programs do what they can to connect kids with independent living services and communicate to them the resources available, she laments that the capacity of the state limits its abilities. This same realization has drawn local foster placement agencies and nonprofits to develop programming specific to kids aging out of foster care.
“Most of us realize that at age 18, we were not really equipped to make it on our own,” said Towers. “Certainly youth who spend time in foster care have faced significant challenges in their lives. These young people are very vulnerable and often have little support.”
Next page: Giving former foster kids a fighting chance
Giving former foster kids a fighting chance
Lilyfield launched its Gateway Independent Living program in 2014, focusing on a small target group of young women ages 18 to 25 who are pursuing a college degree. The long-term program offers housing, educational support and mentoring. All the services are free and women can be referred by OKDHS, community agencies or they can self-refer. Lilyfield has served eight women in various capacities since the program’s inception.
“Our goal with Gateway is deep, rather than wide,” said Towers. “The number of youth aging out of foster care is significant. We decided early on that we wanted to narrow our focus, and we have a long history of working with women through our other programs.”
In addition to keeping its program participants from becoming homeless, Lilyfield is imparting everyday skills these women haven’t been taught, like how to enroll in school, keep up with a class schedule and apply for health insurance. Perhaps most significant, Lilyfield pairs each woman with a mentor family.
“Since many of the women are leaving group homes, they don’t have solid connections to help support them,” said Towers. “Our program cannot replace what a family does, but our hope is that mentor families will give our women support, encouragement, guidance and love as they enter adulthood.”
Working with Circle of Care’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, Jose (whose last name we cannot share for safety reasons) experienced firsthand the value of mentors who believed in him.
“When I aged out of the Boys Ranch and graduated, I planned on going home and working,” said Jose, until two Circle of Care employees presented him with the idea of going to college. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that would be an option for me. They said ‘we’ll give you a place to stay,’ and I thought I’d try it.”
Just a few weeks from his high school graduation, Jose’s mentors secured meetings with admissions and the dean at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
“They held my hand through the whole process,” he said. “They gave me a chance.”
While Jose was used to going to school and keeping up with a full schedule as a foster child at Circle of Care’s Boys Ranch campus, he wasn’t prepared for living independently. In addition to providing housing and educational support, PAL staff work with students on developing life skills, learning financial management, planning meals and cleaning their homes.
“I had to pay bills, get a driver’s license, budget to be able to buy groceries. That was all new to me,” said Jose. And without the PAL program, he said: “I wouldn’t have had success. I’m 100 percent sure of that.”
Though Jose had to drop out of school to work full time several times along his college journey, he eventually earned a bachelor of science degree, with a minor in criminal justice. He now works for Youth Services of Oklahoma County at the juvenile holding facility, processing kids who have been arrested.
“I have the opportunity to counsel and talk to them while they’re here, to tell them they have choices and don’t have to live this way,” said Jose, whose own troubled past has given him valuable perspective and wisdom to impart.
Jose was one of the very first children in Circle of Care’s PAL program in 2004; in 2007, the program was expanded beyond the organization’s own foster children to help meet the needs of any child in the community needing help to complete a high school degree or go to college. Students in PAL may be aging out of foster care, or referred from a church, behavior modification facility or state agency because they lack family support. Since it started, the PAL program has supported more than 170 children, including Jose’s sister, who wasn’t in foster care but needed support to obtain a college degree.
Unlike other transitional or residential programs for foster children that begin at age 18, Circle of Care’s PAL program is open to children at age 16, allowing for a gradual transition from a restrictive environment to a freer one.
“When they come in at 16 and gain trust in the program, at 18 they don’t see it as a restriction, they see it as an opportunity,” said Baston. “They are appreciative of a supportive relationship while they gain true independence.”
Since 2010, PAL has helped 42 students graduate from high school, 19 from college and five from vocational training. Baston, who came from limited means himself and recalls working nights and sleeping four to five people to an apartment to make ends meet, is especially grateful that this program allows students to graduate without debt, and that the support of the program’s students doesn’t end at graduation.
Two PAL alumni live at Circle of Care’s Boys Ranch, assisting with the livestock program. One of PAL’s college graduates is currently on a year-long mission trip teaching in China, for which Circle of Care has provided luggage and the funding for her to come home to visit occasionally. In a thank you note to Baston and his team, Latasha (whose last name cannot be shared for safety reasons) wrote: “I was lost and alone and didn’t see my value or think I even had a future. You helped God touch my life when I couldn’t even hear His voice.”
Next page: Family makes all the difference
Family makes all the difference
The solutions offered by OKDHS and local agencies are making a tremendous difference in the lives of some of the youth aging out of foster care in Oklahoma. But Boyd argues it isn’t enough. She has been educating states on the benefits of changing the “aging out” age from 18 to 21.
“Children who stay in [foster care] until age 21 have vastly better outcomes than those that don’t,” said Boyd. “When children are able to stay in care, those statistics are much more aligned to other youth who have been disadvantaged or in poverty,” rather than youth who have had no support.
So far, 21 states have expanded foster care benefits through age 21. Oklahoma is not one of them. According to Boyd, it’s less costly to provide independent living services than to provide expanded foster care.
As of Sept. 29, federal law is making it mandatory that Oklahoma begin transition planning with foster children at age 14, rather than 16. This transition gives OKDHS more time to connect kids to resources and help them secure permanent connections with adults who can assist them after care. But it doesn’t change what happens when a child turns 18.
What can change a foster child’s future is a family. Takeisa Sims is proof that a caring foster parent can make all the difference in the world. Fostered by a cousin since birth, Sims’ foster mom eventually became her legal guardian. Though she was never adopted, the University of Oklahoma student credits her foster mom, whom she calls “mom,” with supporting her dreams to going to college.
“She may not have a degree herself or be wealthy, but she is a hard-working person,” Sims said proudly.
A former intern with Sunbeam Family Services and currently pursing her master’s degree in social work, Sims guesses that had her biological mom not selflessly placed her, she’d have had a much different life.
“Nobody went to college or is doing much with their lives,” Sims said of her biological family, whom, along with her biological parents, she continues to see regularly. “My life would be drastically different.”
Sims made use of classes and resources as she prepared to age out of the foster care system, but she realized the other foster children in the class didn’t have the adult support she did.
Like she witnessed firsthand, Sims’ story isn’t the norm. Boyer said foster families are often afraid of the baggage that comes with teenagers or that they have formed their own opinions about things.
“There is still a big misconception that youth are in foster care because of something they did,” said Boyer. “It’s not their fault. They still need family.”
Sims said that same stereotype meant friends didn’t believe her when she’d tell them she was in foster care.
“I was so different than what people thought I should be,” she said. “People have such a negative connotation, but I’ve developed as an ambassador over time.”
Sherlyn Conlan, therapist and foster home trainer for the family and child service nonprofit Eckerd, has witnessed that misconception, along with some foster teens’ assertion that they are adults and can make decisions for themselves, can make fostering this age group challenging. But the flip side to that can be foster teens’ resiliency, long-time desire to have a family and ability to communicate.
“When that teen has not had successful parenting in the past, they really believe they are smarter than adults and can make better decisions,” Conlan said. “The challenge is to help them see there are adults who care about them and are trying to help them succeed.”
Eckerd recruits foster families for children ages 0 to 18, but the majority of the agency’s kids in care are ages 12 to 18, which can be the hardest population to place. Eckerd’s Group Home Transition and Diversion program works with teens in group homes to connect them with supportive adults, who can be mentors, connections or even foster parents.
“They may be adults in their family or from their past with whom they have lost contact,” said Conlan. “These adults may or may not be able to be placement providers for the youth, but they can be a connection for them.”
For foster parents desiring to work with teens, Eckerd offers specific training that addresses their unique developmental needs and methods for alleviating potential power struggles. The agency also puts foster families in connection with community resources geared to supporting teens, including OKDHS’s Independent Living Program. Eckerd even helps pay for expenses related to drivers’ education and graduation, all in an effort to give teens the families they deserve.
For teens who don’t receive the love and commitment of a family, Boyd fears the worst: “They end up with an abusive partner or abusing their kids. They haven’t seen anyone not do that.”
But for those like Sims who stand confident in their worth with a supportive network around them, the possibilities are endless.
“If you give a child security and love, no matter where they go, they will know ‘there was one person that loved me,’” Sims said. “That helped change me.”
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