Former foster youth face an uphill battle after leaving the care and supervision of the child welfare system. Most youth that exit foster care do so to independence that is thrust upon them rather than prepared. In fact, statistics show that former foster youth are ill-prepared to face the challenges of life including the educational, social, vocational, legal, and spiritual domains. As a result, youth leaving care have outcomes that are tragic and tell a story of continued neglect.
A study conducted by The League of Women Voters found that 40-50% of former foster youth became homeless within eighteen months of exit from foster care.[i] In studies by the Casey Foundation, former foster youth have shown twice the incidence rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than that of U.S. war veterans.[ii] Another Casey study, found that 70% of teens who emancipate from foster care report that they want to attend college, but less than 50% complete their high school graduation and fewer than 10% of who graduate from high school enroll and college, and of those enrolled less than 1% graduate from college.[iii] Lastly, a study conducted by the Chapin Hall Center for Children found that 25% of former foster youth will be incarcerated within the first two years of emancipation.[iv] Although these statistics are shocking and paint a dismal future they don’t even come close to detailing the despair and hopelessness experienced by many former foster youth post-emancipation.
In Kern County, California, Covenant Community Services, Inc. (Covenant) is striving to change the statistics and outcomes for former foster youth one youth at a time. Covenant is a California nonprofit with IRS 501(c) 3 status that was developed to meet the needs of foster children and former foster youth. Covenant has a myriad of services and supports that directly attack the root causes of hopelessness experienced by those currently in foster care and those that have exited the system. One of Covenant’s main programs serving former foster youth is the CHOICES Transitional Housing Program Plus (THP Plus) service extended to former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 24.
CHOICES serves former foster youth through compassionate case management that enables youth to build the skills needed for changed outcomes and better futures. CHOICES provides hope and love to former foster youth through contact, concern and challenging each youth to fulfill their divine potential. The case managers that work with the youth are committed to transformation and success as they work alongside youth to set goals, objectives and strategize for life change and victory.
This past week, one of the CHOICES case managers related a story that reflects the uphill battle youth face in living responsibly in a world that neglected and abandoned their dreams for a “normal” and safe life. It also shares the intimate thoughts of our wonderful staff as they reach out – despite all odds and outcomes – to provide unconditional love, healing and hope! (We have changed names and some key factors to protect and provide confidentiality).
“Last week I was out visiting with one of my THP participants, Vicki. She has really been struggling in the program and I was actually there to discuss with her a written warning I had mailed. Vicki was warned due to failure to pay rent and failure to maintain contact with me (the latter being a recent issue). As usual, there were multiple situations that led to Vicki’s current behaviors and negative life patterns.
One of the main reasons for Vicki’s current stress level and negative coping skills is a deep financial predicament. She started in our program in late fall with no money and had a baby the second month she was in the program. She submitted a check to pay her first month’s rent, but then let someone she trusted use her debit card. That person emptied her account and there was no money in the bank when her rent check was deposited. As if this wasn’t enough, Vicki lost all other financial assistance and could not pay back what she owed. The following month, Vicki purchased a money order for another month’s rent and lost it. The financial pressures were mounting.
In the midst of all of this, Vicki had her baby taken by the birth father following his release from jail. We walked Vicki through the filing of paperwork to establish custody. All this occurred just one week after lengthy discussions about choices, responsibilities and relationships. Looking back, I know Vicki was embarrassed because she knew she should stay away from the baby’s father but she opted not to.
When I went to Vicki’s house to talk to her and see how I could help, she simply refused to speak to me. It took her about a week to decide she needed to talk to me, refusing my phone calls and not returning texts throughout that time. When she finally did decide to talk to me again, I went to her house and sat with her. During our visit, Vicki shared a lot of information with me that left me very sad and burdened for her. Vicki shared about her baby’s father and about her new boyfriend. What I found the most disturbing was her excitement over the fact that her new boy friend asked her to be his “baby mama.”
Before I began working with former foster youth I had no idea what a “baby mama” was. Understand that this is normal language to me now. It has taken a while for me to get used to hearing “baby mama” and “baby daddy” because, to me, it indicates the impersonal relationship between the mother and father. This process is in direct opposition to God’s design and family development. Yet, I have become used to it. I do NOT, however, think that I will ever be (nor ever should be) used to hearing that someone asked someone else to be their “baby mama” and further more that the mother hears this as a compliment.
The issues facing former foster youth like Vicki disgust me. It really makes me angry. I am a fixer and things in life are very concrete to me, very black and white. Being a social worker has challenged this in many ways. I have to refrain from so many of the thoughts that cross my mind and want to exit my mouth when I hear things like this. I want to tell her to slap the next person who says something so awful to her and then I want to tell her how much she is disrespecting herself and how much she is being disrespected and so on, but I can’t for so many reasons, the biggest one being that it puts up walls that block communication. At this particular moment, I just talked to her about how relationships are not supposed to work that way. A boyfriend, a person you share yourself with (preferably a husband, but that’s a whole different issue), should be someone who is committed to you for the rest of your life, someone who loves you because your beautiful and kind and loving, etc. . . . someone who wants to be with you even if you can’t give him a baby . . . someone who is more than just a “sperm donor”.
I begin to wonder how many other children this man has out there because he wanted someone to be his “baby mama”. I wonder why knowing that fact is not disturbing to Vicki. So many things run through my mind. This gal is a tough participant. I have grown to really care for her. I wish I could take her home and be a mom to her and to her baby because that’s what they need.
Vicki needs a mom who will love her and model good parenting skills and lift her up and tell her how amazing she is and how much God loves her and how He made her in His image. She needs to realize that she is valuable and deserves so much more than what she believes she deserves. I have come to realize in this job that kids in the system not only live different lives than I lived, but they have different dreams, completely different mentalities. I do not believe that their “prince charming” looks anything like mine did when I was a preschooler dreaming of becoming a princess one day. I think they start off life without the same hopes and dreams that I had, and that affects the rest of their lives.
At CHOICES, it is my job to come in and show Vicki hope . . . hope that cannot be granted from any prince charming, the one I thought of as a child or the one Vicki thought of, but a hope they must receive through the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ. But, even once they come into that knowledge, their view of Jesus, of the loving Father that I serve, is completely skewed because of their life experiences.
It’s such a difficult task that we have before us, something impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit. Some days it seems like an impossibility, but I also count it an honor that for whatever reason, God must think I have something to offer, something I can do to bring hope to a life. I pray that I will follow His lead and make the difference He has called me to make and that one day I can write about this Vicki and her story of transformation through God’s help!”
Vicki’s story is far from finished. She is progressing in CHOICES and choosing support and assistance from the wonderful Covenant staff. Despite the unsafe and unsound coping skills Vicki learned from her lack of attachment, parenting and positive socialization, there is hope for Vicki. Vicki has what many former foster youth lack … someone in her corner that will tell her the truth, live with her, teach, train and disciple.
Vicki doesn’t simply need a program or financial aid. No, she, and the youth like her, need compassionate and caring adults that will model, mentor and monitor a life that leads to better choices and opportunities. Unfortunately, for youth like Vicki, there are many negative years to overcome in the attempt to build a successful life. Still, there is hope and it is the hope that lives in people taking the time to serve children that were forgotten and cast away by the families that were designed to provide love, safety and care.
[ii] Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study. Casey Family Programs, 2005.
[iii] Assessing the effects of foster care: Early results from the Casey National Alumni study. Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs, 2003.
[iv] Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood: Outcomes 12 to 18 Months after Leaving Out-of-Home Care. University of Wisconsin Courtney, Mark, Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, 2004