Friday, January 21, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part X

This week's installment on improving the foster care system touches on a topic that I mentioned briefly in Part VIII, and is something that affects all youth, though it's an especially difficult problem for kids who age out of foster care. It's even an issue that I'm very worried about for my own child.

The problem is this: how do we prepare foster youth to live on their own once they age out?

This truly is not just a problem that affects foster youth. It's a problem that affects all kids making that important transition from being a child to being a self-sufficient adult. The challenge is that for most foster kids, there are no supports available to them, even though they now say that most adult children aren't fully financially independent from their parents until their mid-20's.

So how do we remedy this problem?

When I was attending high school, long before the No Child Left Behind Act, the senior high made a real effort to put students into academic tracks. The special education kids were put on a track that taught them basic life and employment skills. Many of the kids were put into vocational rehabilitation programs for those with developmental or physical disabilities. The under-achieving, "normal" kids were put into vocational tracks. Girls tended to be guided into classes that taught the skills needed to be a wife and mother, while boys were herded into classes like welding, auto lab, or wood shop, so they might find their way into the trades. The "smart" kids were encouraged to take college-prep classes so that they were ready for the more demanding curriculum they'd face at university.

Nowadays, it seems like schools are so focused on treating everyone the same that students aren't separated in the same way that they once were. Although there are some Advanced Placement classes available (which are usually sponsored by local Community Colleges) there doesn't seem to be as much focus on tracking the less-capable students into employment and life-readiness classes. The focus is on getting kids to pass the state's high school exit exam, which is now a requirement for graduation.

The odd thing is, kids who don't pass the exit exam still receive a certificate of completion. It's unclear, since this is a relatively new change in state law, as to whether or not employers or the military will accept this certificate as equivalent to a high school diploma.

As Mothering4Money commented on Improving the Foster Care System - Part VIII:
I think the whole Independent Living Program needs to be overhauled and streamlined. Each state is allowed to do with it what they wish, essentially, and because of that, teens do leave the system without proper skills and resources UNLESS the foster parent teaches it to them. The ILP should universally teach these skills.

Mothering4Money is spot on with this remark, because there just aren't adequate services for kids aging out of foster care in many communities.

I see the need for several programs to be in place:
  • Subsidized housing - In our county, the Section 8 subsidized housing program is so overburdened and underfunded that they no longer accept new applications. If you are poor and need housing, you are out of luck if you don't already have a voucher. Exceptions need to be made for foster kids who are aging out, and they should have guaranteed housing until they have a chance to establish themselves.

  • State-sponsored medical insurance - Our state has seen dramatic cuts to the state-sponsored medical insurance program. While the argument can be made that capable, able-bodied adults should have to make their own way, I think it's important to continue to offer aged-out foster kids this support, especially when many of them struggle with ongoing health problems, such as asthma or mental health issues.

  • Life-preparation courses - All foster children, regardless of their future educational plans, should be required to take classes that prepare them for life. They need to be taught the basics of job hunting and resume writing. They need to learn the fundamentals of personal financial management, including how to open (and manage) a bank account, pay bills, and make and keep a budget. They need to learn basic domestic skills, including cooking, cleaning, and perhaps how to make a few basic repairs around the house.

  • Job training and placement programs - Although there are foster kids who do go to college, kids need to learn marketable job skills sooner, rather than later. Although there are scholarships available for those who are academic achievers, the bulk of the kids in foster care are short-changed in their education. They've missed school, lost credit for classes because they've moved around, and are often behind their peers. Although we should do our best to improve their academic achievement, the more pressing concern should be helping these kids to achieve marketable job skills now.

  • Financial safety nets - Even though cash welfare and food stamp programs are hugely unpopular these days, kids who age out of the system should be guaranteed, at least for a few years, a minimum standard of living. This provides them a safety net in case they aren't able to find full-time employment (as is often the case with younger workers) or find themselves suddenly unemployed. Although these programs should, by design, be somewhat sparse to encourage kids to work, they need to ensure young adults don't fall through the cracks and end up unemployed, uninsured, homeless and hungry on the streets.

  • Mentoring programs - All aged-out foster kids should be provided a mentor who can provide support and answer many of the questions young adults might have. Having a resource where a kid can ask questions like, "I'm having problems with my landlord refusing to fix a leaky sink, what do I do?" is hugely important. Having a designated go-to person for the pesky problems that pop up in life can make a huge difference.

  • Substance abuse programs - Although not all foster kids are substance abusers, there are many kids who fall into drug and alcohol addiction as they realize the difficulties of adult life. Programs need to be put in place not only to treat the kids who have become dependent, but also to prevent kids from starting in the first place. It's difficult not to repeat the cycle of substance abuse, if your early life experiences consisted of your birth parents continually drinking or drugging.

  • Domestic violence and parenting programs - Kids who are exposed to an early childhood filled with violence are more likely to become involved in the cycle, either as victim or abuser, in their adult relationships. Foster kids should be given the opportunity to break this cycle, before they and their spouses and children are sucked into this terrible generational problem.

Of course the reality is that even the most carefully-designed support systems will fail if kids don't avail themselves of the services or simply refuse to participate. Regardless of how good the transitional living services might be, there will still be a percentage of kids who will be so done with the system that they won't want to follow even minimal rules for participation. It's hard for a kid, who has been betrayed by all the adults in her life, to trust that the system will work for her.

But these programs should exist everywhere, because it's not right that we destroy whatever family support system a child might have and give them nothing with which to replace it.


  1. I am concerned by the lack of supports for aged out f. kids too. However just guaranteeing them subsidized housing is sadly not the answer. I work in that industry and sadly because they have not got the supports needed to understand what to do to maintain their housing (i.e. someone who makes sure rent is paid and the lease complied with) 9 out of 10 former foster kids that I have rented to have been evicted. It is a very very sad and troubling statistic but making the rent affordable did not teach them not to bring drama to the site. It didn't teach them that they had to keep their apt clean and sanitary etc. Without the life preparement courses that you mention, they are still doomed to fail even with the housing offered to them. I probably do more than most landlords to try and prevent their eviction but am not usually successful.

  2. A few states are beginning to keep the kids until age 21. I believe that child advocates in most states are trying to implement similar programs, however they can't find funding because they're all broke due to the recession. The federal government provides money for child welfare services, but there are rules and regulations on how this money can be spent.

    As an interesting factoid: In California, this past October Schwarzenegger signed a few programs into law one day, and all of these child welfare groups were applauding him as a champion for children,

    And oh.. they were going to do such wonderful things for the children.

    then he cut their funding the next week.


  3. I LOVE the idea of mentors for the kids . . . Good mentors could be SUCH a help for so many things. Even as a reasonably smart adult . . . I find that my background left me poorly prepared for some things in life. Thankfully for most things I have been able to reach out and find others who can assist me in various ways. I know how to use the 'net to find info and how to access info at the library. These are 3 key skills in my opinion that would be helpful to all kids/young adults.

  4. I agree with most of what has been said, but I just want to share a worry about Vocational tracking/Jobs Now etc. I know very well that foster kids are often behind peers academically and aren't college bound, and I agree there should be voc. training. However I think a careful balance needs to be held on both sides because sometimes when money is poured into jobs training for foster youth, poor kids, or kids with MH issues, the message they get is that four year college is not for them or that they are only meant to serve their privileged peers. A system is then set up that only rewards employment so that a kid can not receive benefits or services unless they are employed full time or part time at 25 hours or so. The aged out foster kid in college is not able to get the benefits, and they also have to deal with a culture of extended adolescence where their peers call mommy back home for everything and go home for breaks etc. So, it's good to provide voc. focused programs but programs to specifically support foster youth in college is needed, and could probably increase the HS academic achievement of foster kids if the can see it as a viable option.


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