For the last couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on an early June graduation ceremony I attended to celebrate foster youth. Sponsored by True Up, Benchmark, Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, Kentucky Safe, and the Department for Community Based Services, this event at the Home of the Innocents inspired and challenged me. As an example, it made me wonder what would happen if public schools were as attuned to developmentally appropriate processes as that unique graduation event was. It made wonder about the fundamental reforms that simply have to be made around schooling for foster care youth if we want to ensure a rigorous and consistent learning environment for these young people. But the most pervasive sense I had in leaving the ceremony that night was one of sadness because I know the numbers. And the numbers suggest that many of the wonderful young people who were honored that evening will be addicted, homeless or incarcerated by this time next year. Simply put, aging youth out of foster care is not working in the Commonwealth.
There are more than a few angles on this complex problem. No one cuts to the core better than Frank Harshaw – founder of True Up – a former foster care kid himself and a highly successful business leader — when he asserts that, “Aging out of foster care seems to have become an ‘event’ – but it needs to be a process. And that process should be a transition point for foster care youth that encompasses extensive previous planning, education, and preparation.” Dr. Bill Smithwick – a voice of such acumen around child welfare – affirms Mr. Harshaw’s position as he suggests, “The tragedy for foster youth is they now think they are ready, when they are not, to launch into life on their own only to find themselves alone at sea without direction, wind at their backs, or the necessary supplies to survive. They, like all kids entering adult life need support, companionship, and help transitioning into adulthood. Once outside of the system, they suddenly realize they have no idea how to get a job, enroll in school, find suitable housing, and move forward as productive citizens.”
So what can – what should we do – about youth aging out of the foster care system? When you listen to leaders in the field and, more importantly, to the young people themselves, an emerging set of common sense solutions are readily apparent.
- There is a near universal assessment that the current system for mentoring young people during this process is inadequate and inefficient. The current system – highly centralized and less than personalized – needs to be replaced with a more customized approach in which local leaders can play a bigger role.
- A unanimous assertion is that these young people need extensive TLC if they are to successfully matriculate to post-secondary education or find gainful employment. And there are encouraging examples. For instance, President Tony Newberry of Jefferson Community Technical College has launched processes specifically designed to walk youth who have just aged out of the foster care system into the world of community and technical education. You have to wonder what results we would see if four year universities gave similar care to these young people that they give to that point guard or quarterback. Maybe that is a case management system; maybe it is ensuring a more intentional approach to simply getting them through the door (You remember freshman registration, don’t you?); maybe it is ensuring that they have the tools – be that a laptop or transportation – to perform academically in their new world of independence.
- A third domain that invites focus and creativity is benefits access. Given the new terrain of health care and an array of economic tools that give a hand up, state leaders and community activists need to create a more transparent and seamless system for these young people to get the benefits for which they are eligible such as health coverage and tuition assistance. That is not about more government supports; it is about accessing existing ones that, all too often, are just too complicated to crack as a new applicant.
The encouraging news is that local leaders are embracing aging out as a cause. Natalie Harris and the Coalition for the Homeless exemplify that kind of proactive and imaginative attention. Ms. Harris, in collaboration with folks from the YMCA, is working to create a network of locations where young adults can drop in, feel safe and find adults to mentor and listen to their needs. I especially am fascinated by an idea that Ms. Harris, Cathe Dystra from the Family Scholar House and Gordon Brown of Home of the Innocents have been busily pursuing. What if we could develop a set of apps specifically designed for youngsters who have just aged out of foster care? Just as you can easily find a coffee shop or a great pizza parlor on your Smartphone, what if our citizens just aging out had access to answers about health care, transportation, housing and emergency services with the push of an icon on that screen?
It is going to take a dramatically increased sense of public awareness for this issue to gain traction. It is going to take leaders in Frankfort from both the executive and legislative branches to make this a priority. It is going to take local activists to be inventive and persistent. But let’s be clear. This is a moral imperative. Dr. Smithwick argues, “To do anything less is a major failure on any society.” Amen!