Sunday, January 21, 2007

Foster youth denied normal rite-of-passage activities

Foster kids who 'age out' at 18 need help with transition
Many find themselves homeless and unable to cope
Crary, David. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 14, 2007, pg. A6.

NEW YORK -- Articulate and engaging, 20-year-old Shakhina Bellamy appears -- at first meeting -- an unlikely fit in the ranks of New York City's homeless.

Yet after she tells her story, through tears and flashes of anger, her state of limbo seems an almost inevitable result of an adolescence spent bouncing through a dozen group homes and foster families as a ward of New York's child welfare agency.

She entered the system at 9 and walked away from it at 17.

"I didn't leave because I thought I was grown up -- I left because no one was helping me," she said.

Across the country, child welfare advocates are increasingly aware of the problems faced by young people like Bellamy -- 20,000 or so each year who "age out" of the foster care system with neither an adoptive nor a blood-relation family to support them. Scores of state and local initiatives are being launched to assist them; their plight may be addressed by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

But front-line child welfare workers say even the best new programs won't suffice without the hard work of engaging foster children one-on-one as they enter adolescence, soliciting their input and mentoring them in ways that replicate the best of a parent-child relationship. Bellamy agrees.

"You have to really talk to the kids, understand what they're going through and listen when they complain," she said. "If you don't, there are always going to be problems."

At present, youths are eligible to leave the foster care system when they turn 18. They often have the option of remaining in it voluntarily, but advocacy groups say many are pressured to move on or -- if they make their own decision to leave -- are not provided with good advice about how to adjust.

"As a society, we have failed young people aging out of foster care," asserts Lynne Echenberg of the Children's Aid Society, a private New York agency. "Despite conclusive research showing how vulnerable they are upon discharge from care, these young adults continue to exit the child welfare system to lives of uncertainty, pain, destitution and marginalization."

Dismaying statistics
Studies by experts across the country show dismaying statistics for those who age out of foster care. Fewer than half complete high school; many have no jobs and no home except for a friend's couch to crash on. Their rates of arrests, health problems and welfare dependency are far higher than for contemporaries with families of their own.

One potentially helpful step would be to extend more foster-case protections from age 18 to age 21, as Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., has proposed. Many experts also are pushing for changes much earlier in the process, contending that foster children as young as 12 or 13 need extra help preparing for the transition to adulthood.

"Foster care is a hypervigilant system -- focusing on safety and protection," said Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition. "These young people, as they move into later adolescence, don't get to do the normal rite-of-passage activities that actually prepare kids for adulthood -- getting a driver's license, working. They're kept psychologically dependent on other people making decisions."

Then, after an often disjointed adolescence, many leave the system at 18 unready for independence, Nixon said.

"For every other kid, the time they're allowed to be dependent on their family has continually extended, but, for what I think are financial reasons, we've not allowed that extension with foster kids," she said.

A plan that works
Across the country, much of the innovative work with older foster children is being done by private non-profits such as the Children's Aid Society. It recently opened a one-stop resource center in the Bronx, offering guidance on jobs, housing, health care, education and legal problems.

"When it works, the magic is not that it's all at one location," said the society's CEO, C. Warren Moses. "It works because the kids helped design it, plan it. ... We respect what they're thinking about."

Among the center's clients is Shakhina Bellamy; one of her latest projects there was to compile a resume for use in her job hunt.

Her odyssey through the foster care system came about because of her mother's on-again, off-again drug abuse. At one point eight years ago they were reunited, but ended up in a homeless shelter, and Bellamy was forced back into the system at 14 when her mother relapsed into drugs.

Bellamy spent the next three years moving among different group homes and foster homes, sometimes with Hispanic foster parents who spoke virtually no English. In one home, she said, she was locked in an attic at night by the foster mother; few of the adults overseeing her seemed to care about her future.

Bellamy pleaded with caseworkers for better living arrangements, but they said options were limited for a foster child her age. So at 17, she dropped out of the system -- going AWOL, as it is known among child-welfare agencies.

She managed to graduate from high school in Harlem -- but was one of the few in her class with no relatives attending commencement. She briefly tried college, but found it unmanageable without family or financial support to back her up.

She has had three jobs over the past four years -- the longest for four months -- and now is both jobless and without a permanent home, moving from spare bed to spare bed in apartments of friends and an aunt.

Though she has had to fend for herself, in far more challenging ways than most Americans her age, she doesn't consider herself to have any edge over them.

"If I was from a good home, maybe I could be in college now, or have a job," she said. "I wouldn't have to worry about having food. I'd be around people I'm used to, people I could fall back on."

Raising himself
Like Bellamy, 19-year-old John Jackson has no job or fixed address and says he received little mentoring while drifting through nine New York foster homes and group homes starting at age 5.

Of all the foster parents and social workers he encountered, he said there was only one adult -- a male caseworker -- who cared enough to get to know him and serve as a mentor.

No one else? Jackson shook his head. "I was raising myself," he said.

Jackson said he was moved so often -- changing schools each time -- that he constantly felt rootless and lonely. He gestured toward some of the other ex-foster children at the Bronx resource center.

"I call them my family," he said. "This is the first time I can say I have friends."

Acknowledging past problems, New York's Administration for Children's Services adopted a new plan last summer to improve prospects for the roughly 1,200 young people who age out of foster care in the city each year. Only about 20 percent are adopted or reunited with their biological families.

One noteworthy goal in the Preparing Youths for Adulthood plan -- perhaps difficult to achieve -- is to ensure that each youth leaving foster care has at least one designated adult to rely on for guidance and support.

"We're talking to the young people to identify the important adults in their lives," said Dodd Terry, who oversees the agency's youth development office. "That's a significant shift -- actually incorporating them as planners in the process."

Other goals, Terry said, include closer examination of why foster children are moved from one home to another, and intensified efforts to track down and help young people like Bellamy who go AWOL.

"It's a huge task," Terry said. "We're engaging in a dialogue to say we must do better, and we're going to do better. We're looking at it as, 'What would we do if this was our child?'"

Bellamy is allowed to store her personal belongings at an aunt's house but cannot live there, leaving her homeless. She spent her adolescent years bouncing through group homes and foster families.

Shakhina Bellamy, 20, who left the New York foster system at age 17, got help filling out forms to apply for subsidized housing last month.


Post a Comment

<< Home