For someone who has always had a supportive family – whether that means growing up with caring biological or adopted parents or permanent guardians – it’s easy to take for granted that if a car breaks down, if emergency funds are suddenly needed, or if there’s a holiday or vacation coming up, someone will be there.
But for foster youth who are about to age out of the system or have already done so, there often is no support system. That decreases one’s chance of getting a good education and increases the likelihood that the former foster youth will end up homeless or become involved in illegal activity and be arrested after aging out.
To increase the number of success stories, the Department of Child Services and the Indiana Office of Guardian Ad Litem/Court Appointed Special Advocate have been focusing more on older foster youth through programs and outreach efforts.
Why older youth?
Not only do older foster youth have different needs than younger foster children, if older youth don’t have the right guidance, their futures, statistically, are also at risk.
Nationally, about 25,000 people between the ages of 18 and 21 leave foster care each year, according to statistics from Casey Family Programs. In Indiana in 2009, approximately 435 children in foster care turned 18 and faced aging out of the system without a permanent family, according to the Indiana Office of GAL/CASA.
About 25 percent of former foster youth nationwide have reported they were homeless within two to four years of leaving foster care, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
As far as educational opportunities, they are more than twice as likely not to have a high school diploma or GED as their peers, and they are 14 times more likely not to complete college than the general population, according to a Chapin Hall Midwest Study.
The unemployment rate among foster care alumni was 47 percent, according to that same study, and only half of young adults have medical insurance after aging out of foster care. While in foster care, youth are eligible to receive Medicaid benefits, but they’re at risk of losing this coverage when they age out.
Youth who have aged out of foster care also have a significant chance of reentering the court system, this time as defendants. Of youth who participated in the Chapin Hall Midwest Study, at age 21, 30 percent reported they had been arrested, 15 percent reported they had been convicted of a crime, and 29 percent reported they had been incarcerated.
Regarding mental health, about 25 percent of foster care alumni experience post traumatic stress disorders, while only 4 percent of the general population experience PTSD, according to a Northwest Foster Care Alumni Survey.
Making a difference
To help change these outcomes, the National Court Appointed Special Advocates program started a pilot program called Fostering Futures which trains volunteer CASAs on the needs of older foster youth ages 14 to 21. The Indiana Office of GAL/CASA is one of 16 sites around the country that started the training program this summer; it wraps up in March.
Directors of CASA offices around the state suggested volunteers to Teresa Christopher, program director for Indiana Office of GAL/CASA. Using what they learned at the training, the 76 CASA volunteers have so far advocated for more than 100 youth in Indiana. Another 25 CASA volunteers will be trained early next year, Christopher said.
Part of the program is a “possible selves tree.” Branches reflect how the youth is perceived, typically showing how the person sees himself as a person and as a student.
Off of the branches are smaller branches. One youth included “stay in school, graduate, stay out of trouble,” to be successful as a student. To be successful as a person, he wrote “be outgoing, a good friend, kind, and sincere,” Christopher said while reading one of the trees.
The trees also have roots, which are what “help to stabilize the tree or to make them strong,” like an emotional support system, Christopher said. Negative influences are represented as rocks or lightning rods, and these could include things like using drugs or making bad choices when it comes to friends. She said in some cases, the rocks and lightning rods could be negative influences from the person’s family, such as an abusive parent.
Christopher has heard that the children, for the most part, are appreciative of the opportunity to go over what they need to know to succeed. A few children, however, have been apprehensive about the process, usually because they are unsure what their roots are if they don’t have much of a support system in place.
Leslie Dunn, director of Indiana Office of GAL/CASA, added this gets to the heart of the role of the CASA, even when the youth have multiple case managers and others who don’t necessarily focus on these issues while working with them.
“This is the kind of thing parents would talk to their children about, but many of these children don’t have someone to do that with them,” she said.
In addition to filling out the tree diagram, the CASA volunteer will complete a needs assessment, including resources for the young person in the categories of education, employment, housing, life skills, supportive relationships, community resources, and physical and behavioral health, Christopher added.
Another way the Indiana Office of GAL/CASA is helping older foster youth is through an initiative that promotes more involvement by these young people in their own cases, including family team meetings, permanency planning, and court proceedings.
Dunn said there has been resistance in some counties – the place where the decision is ultimately made as to how involved the youth are in their own cases. She said that one former foster youth told her that because this was about his future, he should be able to attend court hearings.
For youth who can’t attend court but still want to participate, Dunn added Indiana GAL/CASA has shared a sample “Youth Report to the Court” form for county CASA programs to use if they want to do something similar.
Tiffany Coleman, who as a foster youth lived with her half-sister’s aunt from the time she was 16 until she aged out of the system, agreed that older foster youth have different issues and said when she was in the system, it was often difficult.
She explained that seemingly simple things, like getting a driver’s license, are incredibly difficult as a foster youth. She said she already had her license, but she knew of other older foster children who had difficulty in getting one, mainly because their foster parents didn’t want to sign off for them.
Not having a license in turn affects one’s prospects for employment if they don’t have reliable transportation, she said.
Another difficulty she said former foster youth could face involved the independent living counselor. Because she was moving to Bloomington for college, she had to switch to an independent living counselor in Bloomington. She said by then she knew how to live independently, but could understand that not all 18 year olds understand how to go grocery shopping, pay rent, and pay bills.
She added that even though she was staying with her half-sister’s aunt before college, she didn’t always know if she would be able to stay there over breaks, and she couldn’t always afford to pay a daily rate to stay on campus when the regular dorm she lived in was closed.
To address issues like this, Alishea Hawkins, permanency manager of the Department of Child Services, said she has been working directly with colleges and universities. So far, Ball State University and Ivy Tech campuses in east central Indiana have offered foster youth year-round housing options.
“This can be a huge barrier for many young people, especially for someone at a school farther away from their hometown,” she said.
Hawkins added efforts have always been made to find host families willing to take in college students over school breaks, and there are various independent living funds available for foster youth who have aged out of the system to help pay for rent and other living expenses. While these programs aren’t brand new, she said DCS has been making a bigger push to educate case workers and others who work with foster youth about their existence.
Together, these programs will hopefully make a difference, Dunn said.
“These children may have never had anybody in their life who cared about them. It sounds hokey, but it’s completely serious. … It’s so moving for them to have that person who cares about their future,” she said.•