Foster Care and the Transition to Adulthood
Social Workers Make a Difference photos and text by Richard Bermack
At present there are approximately 120,000 children in foster care in California and the number is growing rapidly. Estimates are that by 2005 the number will reach 167,000. The proportion of foster kids to kids in the general population has doubled in 15 years, and grown three times in actual numbers. (The California Legislatures Little Hoover Commission, Now In Our Hands: Caring for Californias Abused and Neglected Children). Part of the rise has been attributed to the increase in substance abuse and increased pressure on families from a variety of social forces. Another factor is that because of increased workloads and caseloads, workers are unable to provide the same quality of services they could provide in the past. Social workers acknowledge with regret that families that could have been saved at one time now fall through the cracks because of the caseload problem.
When foster children turn 18, they are no longer wards of the state, and the legal relationship between the child and the foster parents no longer exists. Many foster parents continue the relationship with their former foster child as if they were the childs biological parent. However, most foster youth are on their own. They must find housing and a means of support. According to national statistics, when children leave the foster care system, 50% have not completed high school. Twelve to 18 months later, half are unemployed, one-third are on public assistance, one-quarter have been or are homeless, and almost one third of the males have been incarcerated.
Independent Living Skills Program
The independent living programs attempt to provide foster youth help in making a successful transition to adulthood. The Alameda County Independent Living Skills Program was one of the original pilot projects, begun in 1987. The program works with foster youth 16 years and older, helping them with education, employment, and housing. In short, ILSP is the last attempt by the system to help these kids become healthy, functioning adults.
Leonard Moncure and his supervisor Donna DeAngelis helped start the Alameda County program. Moncure has seen it grow from a handful of kids to the point that it now serves over half the eligible foster youth in Alameda County. His passion is encouraging foster youth to attend college. We have 33 college graduates, including six with masters degrees, and we have one girl going for a PhD, he states with pride. Of the 82 kids that are graduating from the ILSP program this year, about 18 will enroll in a four-year college.
It took the kids seeing that someone else could make it, Moncure explains. Before they didnt believe that a foster kid could get an education. When I told them they could go to college, they would say, Oh Mr. Moncure, you are always preaching, but no one has done that. Now we have kids coming back and they can see their success. And not just the Einsteins, but the kids who had a hard time getting it together. When I first came here people had the attitude, get them a job and forget it. People act like foster kids are ogres. They think that anyone who is a ward of the court is a delinquent. Then they meet these kids, and the kids sell themselves.
What does it take to make these kids successful? A study at UCLA found that most successful kids had at least one significant adult in their lives. So we try to give them a number of adults in their life, Moncure states. The hardest obstacle to overcome is their low self-esteem and fear of success. Moncure continues, We tell them that when you walk out the door in June, no one is going to care you were a foster child. You cant tell your boss, I didnt come to work today, because my mom mistreated me as a child. He couldnt care less. We understand what is holding you back, and you can deal with the issues while you are here, but when you leave, it is time to lay that baggage aside.
Under federal guidelines, ILSP can provide services only to former foster youth between the ages of 16 to 21. But the staff at ILSP felt this was not enough. In order to provide more flexible services, they formed the ILSP Auxiliary, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Foster Youth Alliance. The program received grants from the City of Oakland and from other private foundations so that they can continue to provide services past the federal age limits. They used the grant to hire emancipation assistants to work with foster youth to help them find housing and employment, as well as employment specialists. The funding also allows them to give out grants of up to $1,000 to help with first months rent and security deposit.
We like being able to give them money after they leave the program, because that way they stay in touch, Moncure says with a smile. ILSP is not only the foster childs last chance to bond with an adult, but it also offers an extended family and emotional support system. You can always call, I tell them. And make sure you come back and visit. We want them to know that ILSP is their family and we dont go away.