Editor’s Note: This is the last of a three-part series looking at life in California’s foster care system for both foster children and foster parents. All names of foster youth or former foster youth have been changed to protect identities.
In today’s society, when 45 percent of college students move back in with their parents after graduation, you’d be hard pressed to find a young adult who is prepared to be completely independent, without any emotional or financial support from his or her parents.
But for foster youth aging out of the court’s care, the expectations are different. By age 21, a foster youth is cut off financially and expected to independently balance all aspects of adult living – finding a job, paying for a place to live, learning to manage money, among many other tasks.
Prior to 2010, these same expectations were placed on 18 year olds aging out of foster care. However, thanks to California’s AB12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, foster youth can now remain dependents of the court past the age of 18. This doesn’t mean they will continue living with their foster family, but it does allow them to access support services funded by the state.
Currently, foster youth can remain in foster care up to age 20; come Jan. 1, 2014, they will be able to remain in foster care until they are 21 years old.
It’s not difficult to see why legislators took action to aid foster youth. According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, nearly 25 percent of the youth who aged out over the past decade did not receive a high school diploma or the equivalent degree. Additionally, 50 percent were involved in substance abuse, and nearly 40 percent had been homeless at some point.
This is all too true for Angie, a former foster child from 1990 to 2003, who said that the majority of the foster children she knew growing up are either dead or in jail. “Literally all of my foster sisters had babies who ended up in foster homes themselves,” she explained. “I’m not aware of any foster siblings of mine who are actually doing well. It’s very sad.”
She thinks more needs to be done to support this vulnerable demographic. “I would like to see more support for young adults as they age out of the system. Some of them know nothing about credit, how to fill out job applications, how to apply for an apartment, etc.,” she said.
She also believes that easier access to education would drastically change the lives of foster kids aging out of the system. “More scholarships for college would be great as well, for those who choose to go to college. I never got to finish my education because I couldn’t afford to go to school and afford a place in the city at the same time,” she said.
Times are changing, however. Since Angie aged out of foster care in 2003, organizations like VOICES, a local resource for emancipated youth, have become more common.
VOICES Sonoma County helps youth aging out of foster care by providing resources in the form of health, employment, education and independent living assistance.
Program Director Amber Twitchell explained, “Young people don’t always have the life skills that they need in order to live independently. And in the case of emancipated youth, many of them haven’t had the chance to experience a consistent role model who can teach them those life skills.”
She continued, “And all of a sudden, we expect them to be self-sufficient. They’re expected to be in school and have a job and be able to pay rent and keep up with how expensive the cost of living is. We as a society have unrealistic expectations.”
One of the key programs offered by VOICES is called MyLife, which helps emancipated youth take charge of their lives and create their own paths to success.
“When a person is close to aging out of care, they have lots of people saying, ‘Okay, here’s what you have to do to be successful.’ What we do is ask the person, ‘What do you want to do in life?’” Twitchell explained. “Some of our staff meets with the person to identify their strengths and goals, and build a support network from that. We help them determine the path they want to take, what the path looks like and how they’ll get there. The support network, and whatever they do, is dictated by the young person’s life and his or her needs.”
VOICES is completely designed and staffed by current and former foster youth, which allows for a peer-to-peer element that Twitchell believes is important. “We’re creating a comfortable environment, run by these amazing foster youth who just want to help others. When someone comes to us – whoever they are, whatever their needs are, we meet with them and assist them. We help them become successful.”
While VOICES is staffed by foster youth, one doesn’t need experience with foster care in order to help out.
Twitchell said, “I tell people that everyone has a role to play in the lives of foster youth. We can always find a way for someone to contribute. We always need financial contributions, and every dollar we’re given does go directly to a young person. But people can also get involved by being a mentor or volunteer. Sometimes, a youth will need help with something like dealing with the IRS, and we try to find an adult who has experience with that and match them up.”
VOICES Sonoma is also in need of donations of food, work clothing and furniture for emancipated youth moving into a new home. “I guarantee you, somewhere in Sonoma County today, there is an emancipated youth moving into his or her first home without any furniture at all,” Twitchell pointed out.
For more information on VOICES Sonoma County, visit voicesyouthcenter.org or call 579-4327 to volunteer or donate.