Some children reach their teenage years and hit the brink of adulthood before that happens. These teens are said to have “aged out” of the foster care system.
But recent years have seen more and more transitional resources being made available for these children to learn how to be live successfully on their own.
The state Department of Children’s Services has something called the Division of Independent Living that focuses on helping youth prepare for life outside of DCS foster care. Once a teenager in DCS custody turns 14, he or she works with case workers to make an Independent Living plan in addition to an existing permanency plan. When a teen turns 17, a Transitional Living plan can also be established.
Michael Leach, director of Independent Living for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, said his division is all about helping teens make plans for their futures.
Each region has independent living specialists who assist teens with their independent living plans. Young people in Bradley and Polk counties are part of the Tennessee Valley region of DCS.
Though they can legally fend for themselves at that age, young people can voluntarily take part in something called foster care extension after they become 18 and until they turn 21.
“A lot of times they don’t want to feel like they are being controlled anymore; they want to be free to do what they want to do,” said Jennifer Davis of Chambliss Center for Children. “But then you see them walking down the street a couple of months down the road, hungry or coming by and asking for food.”
While they are “not technically in foster care,” Leach said young people can continue to receive services from DCS that he said are meant to help them transition out of foster care.
“Eighteen is not a magic number,” Leach said. “As an 18-year-old, you or me may have needed assistance from our parents.”
There are some requirements for being in extended foster care that are decided on a case-by-case basis, one of which being that a young person must have been in foster care for at least a year after turning 16.
The assistance the DCS gives to young people who have opted to take part in foster care extension includes things like educational and training vouchers to help pay for college or vocational programs.
The services each young person receives are based upon their individual needs. For example, someone in need of extensive mental health care will have different concerns than someone planning to attend college. Leach said each young person has the opportunity to be actively involved in making his or her own plans.
Another big part of the process is life skills instruction classes. Leach said most young people have parents who have taught them things like how to do laundry, cook and other useful things. However, he said those who have been in foster care are often ill-prepared for living on their own.
“We’re encouraging youth to accept extension of foster care,” Leach said. “It’s a way for them to not leave foster care without any help.”
Other organizations may offer additional transition resources.
Kristen Stucker, foster parent recruiter and trainer for Youth Villages said she still tries to get children that are about to age out adopted.
“If we can’t, then (we are) trying to make them successful adults in community,” Stucker said.
Youth Villages also offers additional resources through a transitional living program option. This program allows the organization to work with participants until age 22. According to the Youth Villages website, private donations are used to provide services to those older than 21. MDRC, a nonprofit national research group, released a report in 2012 that states 83 percent of those who participated in the transitional living program were in school, had graduated or were employed two years after leaving the program.
Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga also offers job experience to teens about to age out by allowing them to work in the organization’s thrift store.
DCS extended foster care participants can also receive college tuition assistance. Young adults in extended foster care can generally receive $2,500 per semester for a total of $5,000 per year to help pay for college expenses.
Leach said a study found only 6 percent of those who had been in foster care had earned degrees, while 20 percent of the regular population had.
“We know that, so we’re trying to support them,” Leach said.
Besides a lesser chance of postsecondary education, he added that problems like homelessness, criminal activity and unplanned pregnancy tended to be higher among those who had been in foster care. Though some of those things were due to poor personal choices, Leach said he does not “want people to think these outcomes are them being lazy,” Leach said.
Leach said trauma from whatever caused a young person to end up in foster care in the first place can still have a negative impact on them later in life.
But there are also stories of those who have overcome their pasts, he said.
Leach said he knew of a 21-year-old young woman who had kept in touch with her local independent living specialist after leaving extended foster care. She had called the specialist simply to share how she had passed her college psychology class, having continued to maintain a friendly relationship.
Those relationships built with staff are important, he said.
“A lot of these youth have had people give up on them,” Leach said. “But there’s a lot of resilient youth out there.”
As of the most recent numbers the DCS compiled at the end of April, Leach said there were 502 young people in extended foster care.
From July 2012 until April 2013, 264 in extended foster care received education vouchers to attend college. There were also 118 recipients of the “Bright Future Scholarship” available to former foster children who were not necessarily in extended foster care.
Leach said those who know young people in foster care should encourage them and help them gain the resources they need to start successful adult lives.
“It can give them a step in the right direction,” he said.