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Aging Out: Gaining a voice
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Last week, we ran part one of a series on aging out of foster care.  We were introduced to Daniel Martin, a foster alumnus who now works with other fosters in an independent living program in Wichita.  His generation of fosters is working to change the system to ensure future fosters are empowered and have a more successful outcome.  But it will take a lot of work to turn the system around.  Here are a few ways they are making a difference, and ideas they have for the future.

Memorial day weekend is here.  Families are getting together for cookouts and camping trips, taking trips to the cemetery to honor their ancestors and loved ones.  We often take these ties for granted.
In a perfect world, after a child is taken from their family and placed in the foster care system, a loving and understanding foster family would be found to take the child and provide a stable home, and they would remain there until they are reunited with their family or adopted by another.  They would also be able to remain in their own community, attend the same school they always had.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.  
In recent years, initiatives by several non-profit have focused on bringing these inequities to the attention of members of Congress.  The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute has been instrumental in creating the Foster Youth Internship program, a competitive program that sends former foster youth who have completed at least one year of college to Washington D.C., for a semester.  At the end of the semester, the youth present reports on a facet of the foster care system they’ve identified needs change.  

Paving the way for success in school
One FYI, Michael DuVall, addressed the issue, “Transitional Foster Youth, Post-Secondary Education and Mentor Programs,” in the 2012 CCAI report, “Hear Me Now.”
DuVall, credits his successful completion of college on the support he received through mentoring programs and his social worker who went above and beyond the call of duty.
“As my personal experience demonstrates, most youth learn about college, financial aid, and general life skills through responsible, caring, and stable adult relationships,” he said.  “For most foster youth, their adult relationships have failed to provide even the most basic forms of support, let alone more complicated ones.”   As a result, foster youth miss out on taking those initial steps toward a post-secondary education program, he added.
On average, older fosters remain in the system longer than any other group.  Each year, it’s common to experience one or two placement changes, and many who age out have changed homes five times.  All these changes are stressful, and often leave gaps in education.  Duvall points out that fosters may be unsure where to locate remedial services and don’t have funding to hire a tutor.  They may also have trouble locating information they need to fill out applications for college and for scholarships.
In Barton County, the TRIO program at Barton Community College tries to help fill in some of the gaps, offering assistance with completing G.E.D.’s and graduating from high school through the Upward Bound program, and help with academic issues and financial aid applications and a host of other services through the Student Services arm of TRIO at the college.  While these services are a big help, however, these support services are threatened by federal funding cuts earlier this year when the sequestration deadline passed in March.  
Luckily, there are other private organizations that offer assistance to fosters, including several colleges and the Foster Care to Success program.  These groups offer multi-faceted programs to help with tutoring, financial aid, and study skills, as well as other important life and job skills.  They also offer a place to connect with others going through the same thing.
One recent bill that passed in Kansas, Senate Bill 22, makes it easier for a high school student who is in the foster care system to graduate.  The bill states that if a youth has met all the Kansas Board of Regents requirements, the superintendent of their graduating district must grant a diploma for a foster graduate.  That’s important because some districts have different requirements than others, and it’s common for students to be moved to different districts during their time in foster care.  
“Now, there is more of a push for foster kids to really finish high school, not drop out and get a G.E.D.,” Daniel Martin, a foster alumni from Kansas who now works with DCF said.  He acknowledged that there are still situations, however, where a GED is the appropriate choice.
Getting timely help
Tawni Spinelli, another FYI, advocates for increasing the age of accountability for foster youth from 18 to 21.  
She cites a study presented by co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and Budgeting for National Priorities Project, Ron Haskins, about what is required to drastically reduce the chances of living in poverty.  Three simple rules were presented:  Wait until you are at least 21 years old and married before having children, graduate from high school, and be employed full time.  If all three rules are followed, you will only have a two percent chance of living in poverty.  Sadly, for an overwhelming number of foster children aging out of the system, at least one or more rules are broken from the get-go or within a short amount of time after becoming emancipated adults.  In fact, she reports more than 50 percent of girls are pregnant or have had children within four years of leaving care.  This is a big reason many don’t graduate from high school and are not employed regularly.
“Under Haskin’s three rules, these statistics demonstrate that the foster care system is one of the largest producers of poverty,” Spinelli wrote.  She blames unrealistic timelines and the lack of accountability and transparency in the foster care system.
Two fixes she supports is to have permanency hearings for foster children sooner.  Currently, the federal government requires it is done within 12 months from the time abuse is substantiated and the youth is removed to the foster care system.  She suggests shortening the timeline to six months instead, which could assure a child have fewer placements in the meantime.  Second, she suggests transition plans be started sooner so there is adequate time to help youth prepare for the aging out eventuality.  At the time of her report, the process needed to start at least 90 days prior to their emancipation date.  Instead, she suggests having a transition hearing every year from age 15 on--giving a child three years to be prepared for life on their own.
“Having the courts involved is an avenue that will help hold states accountable for the development and implementation of the transition plan,” she writes.  “Having this hearing occur on an annual basis will help to ensure that the transition plan can evolve as the youth’s needs are changing.”
Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, are an important resource for ensuring proper court involvement in this accountability.  In Barton County, the number of children in need of CASAs outnumber the supply by 136, according to Angela Schepmann, Executive Director of Central Kansas CASA.  Only five percent of kids who are assigned a CASA end up in long-term foster care, and of these 90 percent are adopted.  That’s the impact they can have in the life of a child.  But for those who age out of the system, they can be an important part of a transition and permanency plan.
In Kansas, the DCF requires foster youth to begin working on a transition plan when they become 16 years old.  It is updated annually, and once again 90 days prior to turning 18.  It covers five areas, including education, where to live, where to work, health care and community supports and services.  These supports can include mentors, legal guardians, faith based organizations, community and DCF divisions, family and friends.  
Daniel Martin or Wichita entered the Kansas foster care system when he was 15 years old, and later aged out at age 18.  He now works with DCF as a National Youth in Transition Database program consultant.  He assists young men and women who return to DCF after aging out, looking for the help they need to successfully make a go of life outside the system.  He helps connect them with the life skills teachers they need.
“They work with older youth to impart knowledge about how to balance a checkbook, and create and balance a budget,” he said.  “They stress the importance of making sure there’s money for things like rent and utilities.”
Young adults also receive instruction on how to fill out job applications, write resumes and interview for a job.  Other life skills are more domestic.  They can learn how to cook and clean.
“Some youth don’t know how to do laundry because they’ve been in the system for so long,” he said.

Ways to help
May is foster care awareness month, and much is being written about the need for good foster parents.  Fostering may not be everyone though, but there are other ways to help young adults who need a positive adult in their life.  CASA is one way.   Another is to become a mentor to a young adult either in person or online.  Contact the local DCF office for resources on how to help someone locally.  For information on how to become a virtual mentor, or vMentor, one well recommended source cited in the CCAI study is Foster Care to Success.  FC2S, is the one of the largest providers of college funding and support services for foster youth in the nation, as well as a voice for foster youth on Capitol Hill.  The organization was started by orphans who grew up in the foster care system.  In fact, many mentoring groups are kick-started by former fosters who understand first-hand what it’s like to grow up in the system.  
Through their pioneering efforts, today, more fosters are being empowered to advocate for themselves and give feedback to lawmakers that will ultimately improve the foster care system.   Young adults like DuVall, Spinelli and Martin are leading the way, proving once again that foster kids are just as capable and important as all other youth.

Next--a look at how aging-out foster youth are more vulnerable to identity theft, and efforts being made to shore up their protection from this devastating crime.

Web resources:
Foster Care to Success vMentor program:

Hear Me Now, a report by CCAI Foster Youth Interns