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Leaving home is one of the defining events of growing up. The first taste of freedom from parental boundaries can be exhilarating. But for teens in San Diego County’s foster care system who have lost contact with their parents and who can no longer expect support from their foster parents, leaving home may be the ultimate disconnect.

Emancipate means literally to set free. For foster kids it means court jurisdiction is terminated and they no longer have a foster home. Some teens are emancipated on their 18th birthday, others after graduating from high school. In rare cases, 16-year-olds petition the court for emancipation, usually because they are already living on their own. Last year in San Diego County, approximately 200 foster kids were emancipated. Some went to college, some found work, and some ended up on the street.

Between 1990 and 1998, three studies — the Barth study of 1990, the Westat study of 1992, and the Courtney and Piliavin study of 1998 — looked at foster kids 18 months to four years after they’d emancipated. A glance at the results is troubling. Among some of the grimmer statistics:

• 53 percent reported serious financial hardships

• 35 percent were homeless or moved frequently

• 46 percent had not completed high school

• 42 percent had borne or fathered a child

• 44 percent reported problems with acquiring needed medical care

• 27 percent of males and 10 percent of females were incarcerated at least once

In San Diego, foster kids facing emancipation have three safety nets. When they turn 16, they can enter a program called Independent Living Skills that teaches budgeting, apartment hunting, and other skills they will need when they leave the system. After emancipation, former foster kids under 21 can tap into After Care, which offers assistance with housing, job search, and education, as well as access to some of the Independent Living Skills programs. The third net, Transitional Living, provides housing to those with nowhere else to turn.

The County of San Diego oversees the Independent Living Skills and After Care programs, which are run by various contractors. In his Linda Vista office, Assistant Deputy Director for Health and Human Services Ed Cadena and Section Chief Heather Shorack discuss the problem of preparing foster kids to live on their own.

“When they turn 16,” Cadena says, “we’re required to provide — offer — Independent Living Skills services to them. But Independent Living Skills is a voluntary program, so the youth can opt not to participate in the services.”

Teenagers have a natural tendency to scorn help from adults, and the program becomes available to them at the rebellious age of 16. “That’s what we’re struggling with,” Cadena says. “We’d like to see all of them participate in these services.”

Of the 1236 eligible — including foster kids 16 to 18, wards of the county from youth on probation, and former foster kids under 21 — fewer than half participate. “They all think they already know this stuff,” Shorack says. “That’s the most common excuse. The other thing is, they have other activities.

“From day one, we try to engage them in the services, and the contracted service providers, as part of their contract, continue to do outreach with them using phone calls and flyers — trying to get them involved not only in the core curriculum that they offer but also in the special events and programs that they have throughout the year.”

“We are making a special effort this year,” Shorack says. “We want to encourage these kids to participate because we see the benefits. The youth who’ve gone through the program say it’s very beneficial, and some who missed out said that they really wish that they knew about the program a little bit more. So when we assess these kids, we explain what’s offered. The social workers and probation officers make phone calls now to those who are not participating, and that’s in addition to what the contractors are doing.”

Cadena explains what After Care Services provides to young adults who have left foster care. “In California, every foster youth is eligible for MediCal coverage until they’re 21 — that’s relatively new. They’re also eligible for case-management services through the contracted service providers in each of the regions of the county. That means someone will be assigned to work with the youth one-on-one to address their employment, housing, and educational needs. They’ll work with them as long as it takes to stabilize them and develop an ongoing plan.”

What kind of challenges do foster kids face when suddenly left on their own? According to Shorack, housing poses the worst problem. “I always remember this one youth. She was really articulate. She said, ‘I had a great 18th birthday, but within 24 hours I was on the street.’ That really touched me. If you do not have stable housing, you cannot find a job and you can’t really go to school.”

Cadena has no statistics for how pervasive homelessness is locally among former foster kids. “It doesn’t come to our attention frequently, except on a case-by-case basis. We know from studies about the percentages, and it can vary, depending on how you define homelessness. They can have episodes where there’s a short period of time without a home. We’re seeing that housing is a tremendous issue across the board in San Diego. Southern California is expensive and the vacancy rate is so low.”

“The University of Wisconsin did a nationwide study in 1998,” Shorack says, “and found that 40 to 55 percent of the [emancipated] kids — I don’t remember the exact number, but it was very high — were homeless, sometimes for just one night, sometimes longer.

“We had to assist a youth who became homeless the other night,” Shorack says. “He was living with one aunt after he was emancipated. He was going to a university out of state, but the first year was so tough for him. He couldn’t make it. When he returned on his break, he didn’t go back. So he was living with this aunt in an overcrowded place. That family had a lot of problems, so he had to move to another aunt, but he could not stay there either because of other problems, so he became homeless. My social worker heard about it, so we made an arrangement with a hotel in South Bay and we paid one week’s hotel fees and gave him some food money and bus tokens, so he’s looking for a more permanent place at this point. He wants to go back to school, but these kids have gone through a lot of difficult times and have psychological problems in addition to the schoolwork itself and dealing with their own emotions. It’s really difficult.”

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