Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wheels of the Commonwealth turn slowly for youth in need of services and support

Ex-foster child awaits ruling on state help
Yetter, Deborah. Oct. 8, 2011

LEXINGTON, KY. — In and out of foster homes since age 6, Clairessa Johnson said she was ready to leave state care last year after she turned 18.

But homeless and pregnant, Johnson quickly realized she needed help and asked to be admitted to the state’s independent-living program, which provides assistance with housing, school, living expenses and other services for former foster youths.

Now more than a year later — and recently evicted from her Lexington apartment — Johnson, 19, said she is again homeless while she waits for a final decision after a state hearing officer recommended in June she be returned to state care to pursue independent living.

“This is not right,” said Johnson, who is raising a 10-month-old daughter, attending college and working despite her difficulties. “I’ve been going through this all my life, getting shut down.”

The final decision is up to state social services Commissioner Patricia Wilson, with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Johnson said she still has no word of any decision.

Cabinet officials said Friday that the hearing officer's order was not officially entered until Aug. 15, after both sides had a chance to submit additional material.

After that, the commissioner has 45 days to make a final decision, according to an email from spokeswoman Jill Midkiff.

“Decisions are reviewed in the order received,” Midkiff said. A decision in Johnson’s case “is in the review process,” she said.

Earl Washington, a Lexington social worker and advocate who has been assisting Johnson, said cabinet officials had provided them with no explanation for the delay, despite repeated inquiries.

“It’s not fair to hold her up,” said Washington, who helps run a nonprofit advocacy organization for foster youths called Fostering Goodwill and oversees independent living for Kentucky United Methodist Homes.

Johnson said a social services official recently told her that it was “pointless” to keep calling and that she would be notified once the commissioner decides.

Some child advocates say the case points to a broader problem. They say the cabinet has cut resources for foster-care children who turn 18, and youths who leave the system are ill-prepared to find housing, get jobs, go to school and manage life on their own.

“I think money’s behind it,” said Jerry Cantrell, executive director of Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children, one of several private children’s agencies in Kentucky that offer independent living programs under contract to the state.

Whatever the reason, Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said former foster youths such as Johnson are entitled to know what the rules are and when to expect a decision. “This young person is in child-welfare purgatory,” Brooks said.

Under state law, youths have six months after turning 18 to request a return to the cabinet’s care to get help with services such as independent living. They may remain in the program until age 21.

After cabinet officials refused her request to return to state care, Johnson, with Washington’s help, filed an appeal, which entitled her to an administrative hearing held June 9 .

The hearing officer found that Johnson requested independent living May 4, 2010, about three months after she turned 18 on Jan. 20. At that point, she was still in the cabinet’s custody. On May 13, 2010 a judge — at the cabinet’s recommendation — released Johnson from the cabinet’s custody, the hearing officer said

Washington said Johnson’s former social worker in Jefferson County, Michelle Cox, opposed Johnson’s request for independent living, telling him Johnson “was not a good candidate.” --WHAT KIND OF SOCIAL WORKER IS THIS?

This year, Johnson said, she showed up for her June hearing with little more than her life story to tell. Cox, she said, opposed her request to return to state care and was armed with a thick file of Johnson’s history in the cabinet’s care. Among problems Cox cited, Johnson said, were that Johnson had been “defiant” and had become pregnant as a teen. -- ALL THE MORE REASON SHE NEEDS SUPPORT TO MAKE IT AS A YOUNG ADULT

Still, hearing officer Deborah Stanley ruled in Johnson’s favor, noting she testified she had shown stability, had graduated from high school after leaving state care, has a job and is caring for her child while trying to continue her education.

“Based on the evidence and regulatory guidelines, Ms. Johnson’s commitment must be reinstated,” Stanley’s recommendation said. Johnson provided a copy to The Courier-Journal.

Johnson, a Louisville native, said she moved to Lexington to stay with a friend last year. She said she enrolled at Lexington’s Henry Clay High School.

“I was determined to graduate,” she said.

She also found a job at a fast-food restaurant, enrolled at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and moved into an apartment with the hope she would get enough money to keep up rent payments through the independent-living program.

But with her case still pending, Johnson said, she fell behind on the rent and was evicted in September. She is again staying with a friend.

“Sometimes it feels like a cycle that will never end,” Johnson said.

Washington said the delay is especially galling because Johnson has worked hard to pursue the appeal, a lengthy process that would discourage many young people.

“She could be in independent living and getting everything she needs,” Washington said. “The fact of the matter is we won an appeal and she’s homeless now.”

Johnson said it’s frustrating because she is trying to take charge of her life after years of foster care where social workers were in control.

“I feel like they lived my life for me,” she said. “I didn’t get to make decisions about nothing.”

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