Foster Youths' Long, Hard Road to Independence

Jim Roberts
July, 1, 2015 -

When I started the Family Care Network in 1987, there was certainly a different approach and philosophy driving the foster care system; now, looking back, it seems like the Stone Age. The system has come a long way, but it has been a tough, hard row to hoe.

One of our first foster care placements was a teenage girl from a Bay Area county whose parents were deceased and she wanted to live near her brother who resided in San Luis Obispo County. We were able to place her with an amazing lady who worked as an administrator for the former California Youth Authority facility in Paso Robles. It was a great, successful placement, until she turned 18. Then disaster struck!

In essence, we were ordered to return her to the county Social Services headquarters at a certain date and time. When my Social Worker arrived with the young lady, she was horrified to learn that the young lady was going to immediately be loaded onto a bus and transported to a local homeless shelter. She was being discarded like a bag of trash. This was “the system’s” usual and customary practice!

I was contacted right away and said, “No way! Bring her back and we’ll figure something out.” Her foster mom was equally appalled and quickly took her back in. Eventually, her brother and his wife were able to relocate to a larger home where she went to live. While this story had a good ending, unfortunately most other foster youth at the time ended up at the homeless shelters or worse.

It has always been disgusting and a mystery to me as to why our foster care system and society at large has treated foster youth as second-class citizens for so long. These children and youth have been twice victimized--first, through adverse childhood experiences beyond their control and second, by the system supposedly designed to protect and care for them!

Having served as a Chief Deputy and Chief Probation Officer, the inappropriate treatment of foster youth was a major force behind my creating the Family Care Network. I was determined to help forge a solution.

The good news--even though slow in coming--is that positive changes in the treatment of foster youth has come and are even accelerating. The first major effort to help youth aging out of the foster care system was the federal Independent Living Initiative enacted by Congress in 1986 under P.L. 99-272. This bill established the “Independent Living Program” commonly referred to as ILP, for all federally eligible foster youth ages 16 and older. The initiative was not funded until 1987/88, allocating a portion of federal foster care funding for each state to implement ILP services.

The Independent Living Initiative was replaced by Congress in 1999 by the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. The “Chafee Act” was monumental legislation and a major step forward in helping foster youth successfully exit the foster care system. Basically, Chafee has five main goals:

  •     Requires that all foster youth ages 16-18 are provided a comprehensive Transition to Independent Living plan to ensure that all of their needs and requirements to successfully secure independence are met.
  •     Ensures foster youths’ educational and career path plans are established.
  •     Prepares foster youth to enroll in college or career path vocational training.
  •     Provides personal and emotional support to children aging out of foster care.
  • Provides financial, housing, counseling, employment, education and other appropriate supports and services to former foster care recipients between the ages of 18 and 21 to complement their own efforts to achieve self-sufficiency.

Even though well intended, the Chafee Act fell short in several ways. First, it was and has not been sufficiently funded to really accomplish its purpose. But more importantly, it was inconsistently and ineffectively implemented from state to state, and in states like California, from County to County. This design offers very little consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Additionally, I feel one of the biggest impedances to establishing effective ILP services has come from the County social workers. The importance of these services for foster youth has not been taken seriously; instead being viewed as “another thing to do” by workers who exhibit a “coddle and protect” practice rather than “prepare and equip” one.

California has initiated their own excellent efforts towards assisting foster youth make successful exits from the system. In the late 1990s, the Transitional Housing Placement Program (THPP) was enacted to serve foster youth ages 16-18. Several years later, the THP-Plus program was established to serve former foster youth ages 18-24. And in 2012, the Fostering Connections to Success Act (AB 12) was launched which allows youth to remain in the system and receive an array of services and supports up to age 21. All of these efforts have created much better outcomes for foster youth aging out of the system, or at least the potential thereof.

Promoting foster youth success has been a high priority for the Family Care Network since our inception. In 1988 we implemented ILP curriculum and training for staff, caregivers and foster youth. We were one of the first agencies to provide THPP, THP-Plus and AB 12 services in California. Working with foster youth, we were created and published the LIFEBOOK as a hands-on tool to promote successful independence. Our agency has been a Chafee-ILP provider in Santa Barbara County for some years, and as of July 1st, we will be doing likewise in San Luis Obispo County.

Successfully guiding foster youth to self-sufficiency and independence is very achievable. But, it takes a strong commitment to the effort; patience and persistence; adequate public resources; community integration and partnerships; and public/private collaboration. Every youth who has had the misfortune in life to end up in the foster care system, must be afforded the dignity, opportunity, guidance and services to achieve his or her dreams and aspirations. I am honored that the Family Care Network can be a model of this practice.