How Alameda County is leading a new movement to shepherd foster care teenagers into adulthood.
For many kids, 18 is an eagerly anticipated milestone. But for Claudia Mendez, her 18th birthday was a day to dread.
After suffering years of physical and verbal abuse by her mother and mother’s boyfriend, Mendez entered the foster care system at 16. For two years, she bounced between foster homes in San Francisco and Oakland. Then last October, she turned 18—and became one of the approximately 5,000 kids who age out of the California foster care system every year.
“The biggest thing was that I was scared,” Mendez says. “It was frighten-ing knowing that I’d be on my own, that there was no going back. How was I going to survive? And I have allergies, how was I going to get medication? There were suddenly a lot of questions like that.”
Mendez wasn’t alone. Wendy Banegas, 21, recalls shuttling between different homes around the East Bay after she emancipated (aged out of foster care), looking for a place she could live permanently. Shavonté Keaton remembers the confusion of moving to San Francisco from southern California as she struggled to adjust to life on her own. And speaking from the Concord office of First Place for Youth, a program that provides housing for aged-out foster youth, 20-year-old Geneva Naquin relates how the end of foster care crept up on her before she was ready.
“In the beginning it was just overwhelming,” says Naquin, a young African-American woman with stylish plastic-frame glasses and a tattoo reading “Geneva” in stylized cursive font on her arm, smiling even as she recalls a scarier time. The afternoon light streams in, splashing over motivational posters covering the light purple walls: You can’t let other people interfere with what you do. You don’t need to see the whole staircase, just the first step. A plastic box of toys tucked in the corner is a welcome distraction for clients with children of their own. Naquin leans against a desk, brushing back her long hair. “I didn’t know what would come next,” she says, “if my foster mom would let me keep staying with her. It seemed like it was the end of the world.”
Although we often think of 18 as the age of independence, the reality is that most Americans today rely on financial help from their parents far into their 20s. (In fact, the average age at which Americans become fully independent is now 26, according to the 2000 national census.) Thus, for most, 18 isn’t a fast cutoff point, but rather the beginning of a gradual transition into adulthood.
But most foster teens don’t have the luxury of a gradual transition. At 18, those who haven’t returned to their original families or been adopted are considered legally adult, and no longer the responsibility of the state. This is the age at which the protections of childhood are unceremoniously stripped away. The state of California stops compensating foster parents once their ward turns 18. While some foster parents allow their former charges to continue living at home, they are under no legal obligation to do so, and many lack the resources or desire to provide for them.
Some foster parents do, in fact, maintain strong ties. Gerry Hauser of Oakland, foster mom to 34 kids since the 1970s, has stayed in close contact with several, although, she says, “We’re not providing financial support to any of them.” However, when a former foster daughter became pregnant while attending college, Hauser agreed to take care of the baby while the mother finished her education. But such long-term support, financial or otherwise, is the exception rather than the rule.
Traditionally, even well-meaning advocates and officials gave little thought to what happened to children once they aged out of the system. But in recent years, former foster youth have been pushing to bring attention to this issue. And in California’s fragmented social services network, Alameda County stands out at the forefront of foster care reform, a place where changes are happening. Here, county agencies, nonprofit groups, and educational institutions alike are working to facilitate a smoother transition to the adult world—helping dislocated teens find jobs, keep homes, and graduate from college. Thanks to their efforts, and those of groups like the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance, a segment of the population that was once all but relegated to the streets is finally finding a voice.
“When people think about foster care, they think about babies being adopted,” says Sylvia Soublet, media relations officer for Alameda County Foster Services. But, she notes, “the majority of foster children available for adoption are age 7 to 18.” Those who enter the system not as coveted infants, but as older kids, are likely to remain there, unadopted, through their teens. “We’re just now getting the public, the legislature, and law thinking about this over the last two to five years,” Soublet says. “The notion that at 18 you’re ready to go out on your own is one that we’ve tried to debunk. What kid is really ready to face the world at 18?”
In fact, studies show that foster youth have more difficulty than other teens in adjusting to independent life. Many spend years in the system, often moving between group homes and multiple foster parents; this instability means that many are too busy worrying about the present to be able to deal with the long-term future. Every foster youth has a social worker and a state-appointed lawyer to advocate on his or her behalf, but for various reasons, visits by these professionals are, in some cases, few and far between. (Keaton says she only saw her social worker once in her five years in foster care.) And since social workers often know the most about resources for emancipating youth, kids with little social worker contact can slip through the cracks.
However, Alameda County has reduced its foster care caseload from a high of 4,300 cases 10 years ago to approximately 2,200 cases today—a major step toward making sure that every child in foster care gets more individual attention. “The good news is that this is a very solvable problem,” says Deanne Pearn, co-founder and chief development officer of First Place for Youth. “There are 5,000 kids graduating foster care every year in California, not 50,000. We know who they are and we know where they live and we know what to do to get them on different life paths.”
Still, foster youth face difficulties that their peers do not. In 2001, public child welfare agencies in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, together with the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, began one of the first rigorous studies comparing the lives of former foster youth and non-foster youth as they moved into their 20s. Tracking down and interviewing former foster kids, the researchers learned that one in four landed in jail within two years of leaving foster care, fewer than 50 percent earned a GED or high school diploma, and a full 20 percent ended up living on the streets for at least one night.
“There are many reasons that foster youth have difficulties,” says Reed Connell, interim executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance, a coalition of 29 agencies serving transitioning foster youth. “As a rule, they have experienced severe abuse or neglect before entering the system, which already makes them more at risk for a variety of problems including substance abuse and mental health issues. We see higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among foster youth than among veterans. Then, the goal of the foster care system is to be a temporary intervention, while their parents or guardians can make changes so they can return home. Youth that turn 18 and age out are those who were removed and never adopted or returned to the family of origin. Most will have extensive histories in foster care.”
In California, 65 percent of teens leaving care do so without a place to live and nearly 40 percent become homeless within 18 months, according to a recent report by the San Francisco–based John Burton Foundation, an advocacy group that pushes for improved resources for foster children and teens.
As these depressing statistics came to light, advocates and former foster children moved to draw attention to the issue—with some success. In response to this pressure, then-President George W. Bush signed the “Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act” last October, providing matching federal funds for states to extend transitional support services for foster youth until age 21. AB 12, the California bill implementing this federal act, has strong support from both sides of the aisle in the state Senate, although it’s recently been tabled until next year due to the state’s budget crisis.
“We’re excited because it gives states the option to extend foster care to 21,” says Pearn. “But if not done right, it might just be postponing the same train wreck if we can’t help former foster youth get ready to make it on their own.”
Last May, Faith Battles, intake services program manager for Alameda County Foster Services and a former foster child herself, delivered a poignant speech at a National Foster Care Month event outside Oakland City Hall. A slender African-American woman with short bobbed hair, and dressed professionally in brown slacks and a short-sleeved turtleneck sweater, Battles has an easy smile, with braces that make her look younger than her 38 years. Calm and confident behind the podium, she doesn’t look like someone who’s struggled to find her way. In this case, though, appearances are deceiving.
At the age of 14, Battles was removed from her South Los Angeles home due to her mother’s crack cocaine addiction, as were her two younger sisters. Like many older kids in foster care, Battles was never adopted. Nor was any effort made to keep the three girls together.
In the ’80s, Battles says, the child welfare system assumed that anything reminding foster kids of their original home—siblings included—was poison. Dealing with a bureaucracy that didn’t seem to care and struggling to keep in contact with her sisters, Battles had to mature fast—and found herself thinking like an adult long before she felt like one.
Although she made, she says, “every effort to keep us together,” she “could only really connect again with family when we turned emancipation age.” But “after I aged out, I helped my sisters get their IDs, family history, driver’s license, social security card. That was difficult to do, because it felt like you were doing it all alone.”
A high school teacher who recognized Battles’s exceptional drive encouraged her to apply to college; she wound up studying law and society at U.C. Santa Barbara. There, she dealt with all the usual challenges of adjusting to college life—plus one more.
“At the time, the government did provide financial aid for foster kids,” Battles says. “The bigger problem was that I didn’t have anyplace to go when the dorms closed for winter and summer holidays. Now the good news is that the state has provided opportunities for dorms to stay open over holidays. Former foster kids had to be really driven to succeed back then in the ’80s.”
She pauses. “They still have to be,” she says. “There are more resources now, but they still need to have the drive to access them.”
Teenagers suddenly forced to navigate an adult world alone face four major issues: getting a college education, acquiring the skills to get a job, finding a place to live, and finding the money to pay for it all. Today, help is available in each of these areas—but only if kids can find it.
College is a comfortable in-between world, where young people can experience life away from home for the first time. And while students like to boast about their apparent self-sufficiency, parents are never too far away in case of trouble. “Most kids from stable homes get the benefit of the best transitional living program: a four-year college,” says Pearn. But if former foster kids can make their way to college—no easy feat without parental support—it can be an ideal place for them, too, to gradually grow more independent. And because colleges are geared to helping young people on their own for the first time, they offer resources (both academic and otherwise) for all students that are incredibly helpful to recent foster kids.
Claudia Mendez, for one, figured out how to get the assistance she needed, and now lives in a San Francisco State University dorm. Currently majoring in English, she plans to attend law school and become a legal advocate for foster youth. A scholarship from Guardian Scholars—a program that provides funding, internships, job opportunities, counseling services, and year-round on-campus housing to San Francisco State students who have aged out of the foster care system—allows her to pursue her ambitious goals. Still, she says, “I guess it was only after I finished my first semester at college that I started to feel more safe and stable.”
Mendez is unusual among former foster kids. While less than half graduate from high school, the number that graduate from college is even lower—a scant 10 percent. Many see a college education as key to improving their lot, but the stress of shuttling between foster homes makes it hard to keep high school grades up, and the cost of college is prohibitive for students without parents to help shoulder the financial burden.
Foster youth “face other barriers as well,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a U.C. Berkeley professor of social welfare and co-director of the university’s Center for Child and Youth Policy. For example, she says, “most kids in college can rely on their parents for references or social networking, or even for little things like a desk lamp or pillowcases. Foster kids have no assets.” And, Berrick notes, “most college students have taken prep courses for SAT in high school; many had parents who have talked about college since they were very young. But most foster kids get no regular preparation for college. And when they get there, they might feel socially awkward or feel stigmatized, even just by having dorm mates asking innocent questions about their families. Many benefits that middle-class kids enjoy, they don’t.”
In 2005, Berrick helped found the Cal Independent Scholars Network, a program to help former foster youth adjust to college life at U.C. Berkeley. With liaisons in almost every aspect of campus life, the program takes a holistic full-service approach to assist students with any problems—academic or social—that might arise. More importantly, Berrick says, it cultivates a sense of community—something sorely lacking from the lives of many former foster youth.
The network helps with matters as small as computer malfunctions and as large as career connections. Coordinator Deborah Lowe Martinez relates the story of one student who consulted his Independent Scholars mentor about pursuing a legal career following graduation. The mentor asked a friend, the partner of a prestigious law firm, to look at the young man’s application. As a result, the student landed a paid internship that’s opened many doors for him.
Although the Independent Scholars Network started with only one student, approximately 40 had joined by the end of the 2008-09 school year. This May, three of its earliest members graduated, the first to do so—though surely not the last. Because of privacy issues, the program doesn’t solicit new members. Instead, up until now, students have usually heard about the program through Cal’s financial aid office, which identifies former foster children through their answers to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). But this summer, says coordinator Martinez, the information channel changed direction with interested students seeking her out before the financial aid office had completed its paperwork—evidence that word really is getting around.
Sometimes the best help for young people transitioning out of foster care comes from peers who have already survived the process. That’s the principle behind the Youth Adult Partnership (YAP), an advisory board comprised of both recently emancipated youth and adults that meets bimonthly in Oakland. A partnership between Alameda County Social Services Agency, Alameda County Independent Living Skills Program, Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, the Foster Youth Alliance, and Beyond Emancipation, YAP’s board provides recommendations to the county on its foster youth programs. YAP members review proposed policy, provide feedback on existing services, and share their perspectives on growing up in the system.
“The county knows it can improve how it serves youth,” says YAP coordinator Georgette Todd. “And the best way to do that is, instead of sporadic focus groups, a board with consistent voices. Who better to tell you how to improve services than people who live and breathe those services?”
YAP is something unique, the only body of its kind in the state. And while its role is merely advisory, Todd says that it is a real coup in foster care reform—the first time that youth have had a chance to see and challenge the inside workings of the system.
Ken Shaw, an adult YAP board member and program coordinator of the county’s Independent Living Skills Program, sees the experiment as a success. Input from youth board members, he says, has reformed the living skills program, which prepares those about to exit from foster care for their next step, be it a four-year college, community college, vocational training program, or full-time employment. Offering how-to classes in everything from managing a bank account to avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, the program is also often the first point where teens learn about a wide range of services and options. The YAP board, Shaw says, recently recommended that “more professional folks come in to talk to [Independent Living Skills] classes—like an expert in money management rather than someone from the general staff.” He also notes that YAP is now involved in training curriculum for new social workers, a change he views as “very positive.”
The Youth-Adult Partnership isn’t the only local project to harness the passion and expertise of recent foster system graduates. Honoring Emancipated Youth, a 10-year-old nonprofit based in San Francisco, has assembled a group of ex-foster youth committed to advocating on behalf of current and former foster children.
“A lot of this is rooted in a pendulum,” says Sara Razavi, executive director of Honoring Emancipated Youth. “Social work used to be done without asking young adults about anything. Later, it swung over to the point to where they’d ask what youth thought but wouldn’t educate them about how policy worked. It’s important that they be fully informed about the foster care system and how they could follow up on issues.”
Foremost among problems facing newly independent foster youth is finding a home. Nationwide, statistics indicate that about 20 percent of these young adults will experience a brief or extended period of homelessness. But in the Bay Area, with its steep cost of living and saturated job market, the number is closer to 44 percent. Those that do have homes find it difficult to stay put; most are forced to move frequently. On average, former foster kids report living in five to 10 different situations during the first three years following emancipation.
Shavonté Keaton, now a board member of Honoring Emancipated Youth, says that housing resources are available for former foster youth leaving the system, but cautions that they are difficult for non-college students to access. Born in Atlanta, Ga., Keaton wound up in foster care at the age of 13; her father was serving a prison term for armed robbery, and her mother, who could no longer care for Keaton and her three brothers, sent the children to live with a California friend who later became their foster mother.
Keaton, who now lives in Daly City, graduated from San Francisco State in May with a degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice. Like Mendez, she plans to attend law school and become a foster youth advocate. For now, though, she’s intent on helping former foster kids avoid winding up on the streets.
Each of Keaton’s three brothers experienced a period of home-lessness after leaving the system at 18, a fact that solidified her decision to go to college, and forge a more secure future. “The most difficult thing was knowing that there’s nowhere to go back to,” she says. “I knew I had to motivate myself. There’s no room to slip up. And that’s a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old.”
One state program that has helped many stay off the streets is Transitional Housing Placement Plus (THP-Plus). Providing both affordable housing and comprehensive support services to former foster care youth aged 18 to 24, as well as to youth on probation, THP-Plus helps these challenged young people transition into independent living. The program is administered by the California Department of Social Services, which distributes funds to counties and nonprofits like First Place for Youth, one of Alameda County’s biggest THP-Plus providers.
THP-Plus funding allows First Place for Youth to initially pay the full rent on a young person’s apartment, then gradually reduce monthly contributions over the course of two years. Along the way, caseworkers steer their clients toward educational and employment opportunities, help with transportation and food vouchers, and usher them into the realm of adult responsibilities.
Geneva Naquin became a beneficiary of THP-Plus when First Place for Youth set her up with a shared apartment in San Pablo. With a secure home base, she is able to attend classes at Berkeley City College and hold down a job at a local Target. Similarly, Wendy Banegas found the help she received from the nonprofit indispensable in becoming fully independent. Physically abused as a child by her mother, Banegas went into foster care and remained there until she turned 18. Subsequently, she bounced from place to place, living briefly with her birth father in New Jersey and her birth mother in the East Bay. But she knew that wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted. “If I went back to my mother, I’d just become dependent again,” she says. “I wanted to be on my own.”
Banegas learned about First Place for Youth while attending Independent Living Skills Program parenting classes for help with raising her 2-year-old son. With help from First Place for Youth staff, she identified the apartment she wanted—a place in Richmond, close to her job at Yellow Cab Express. Right now, First Place for Youth subsidizes her housing, but in another year and a half, she’ll take over the lease completely. “With First Place, if I wanted something,” Banegas says, “food, cable, Internet—I’d have to get it done myself. It was very helpful to build up my responsibility.”
Yet, despite the excellent efforts of nonprofits and agencies, one of the most crucial reasons that successful foster kids excel is because of a caring adult nudging, cheering, and watching out for them—in short, filling the role of the parents who can no longer care for them. As much help as peers can provide, ultimately what many young people most need is a grown-up to point the way.
“Kids that are in the foster system that do not have anyone are rudderless,” says Robert Goetsch, president of Be a Mentor, a Hayward-based program that pairs at-risk children and teens with responsible adult guides. “The truth is that quite a number of services and opportunities are available now for emancipating youth if they know, are interested, and someone guides them to it.”
Many now-flourishing former foster children have fond memories of someone—maybe a foster parent, a social worker, or a teacher—who cared enough to set them in the right direction, to tell them about the Independent Living Skills Program, about First Place for Youth, about Honoring Emancipated Youth. In Banegas’s case, a concerned stepfather changed the course of her future. “I never thought I’d have college as an option,” Banegas says. “After my son was born, my stepfather asked me what I planned to do. I said, ‘I guess I’ll work.’ And he said, ‘No, you’ll go to school. I’ll take care of the baby.’” Today, Banegas works full-time as a taxi dispatcher while studying to become a radiology technician at Contra Costa College.
For all the complicated issues challenging newly independent foster children in Alameda County, it’s also one of the few places nationwide where a committed group of advocates has made substantial progress.
From organizations that help foster children find homes to university programs that help them excel in school to a county system that’s working harder to prepare them for adult life, Alameda County is a place where more and more people recognize a problem that few once knew existed—and are working together to solve it.
“This has only been on the radar screen for a few years,” says Foster Youth Alliance’s Reed Connell, “and it’s difficult because there is a disproportionate number of foster youth in California than elsewhere: We have 10 percent of the country’s population, but 20 percent of its foster kids. But there have already been lots of efforts by government agencies, nonprofits, and independent living skills programs to address it. You could argue that we’re doing pretty well so far, but there’s always a lot more to be done.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a frequent contributor to The Monthly. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the East Bay Express, and PBS Mediashift.