“They come into foster care for abuse or neglect issues,” Cadena says, “and some of these youth have lost contact with their family or have no sense of connection with their family. There’s a sense of isolation. It’s really touching to me when you hear their background and the stories and issues about why they came into out-of-home care and everything they’ve had to go through — it’s always heart-wrenching.”
Despite the many heart-wrenching cases, there are also success stories. “Last year,” Shorack says, “we had 69 kids who went to community college in San Diego and 15 went to a four-year college last year after being emancipated. Still, lots of kids have psychological difficulties adjusting to school life, so some schools offer special programs targeted at emancipated foster kids, like the Guardian Scholar program at Cal State Fullerton.”
“They focus on foster youth,” Cadena says. “They have ten slots that are specifically for foster youth that have exited care, and it’s an all-inclusive scholarship. It even covers their break time, so that they’re not homeless during the Christmas break and other times. A lot of kids are eligible. They’re really eligible for quite a bit when they exit the foster care system, so we try to maximize that.”
“We provide financial aid program information,” Shorack says, “and we have a college-bound workshop that includes taking the kids on a college tour.”
Without the normal family support during the transitional period that follows high school, foster alumni not in a college dorm may find support in Transitional Living. “San Diego has several transitional housing resource programs in place,” Cadena says. “In the North Central region and here, San Diego Youth and Community Services has the Take Wing program, which is not exclusively for former foster youth, but they do emphasize them as the population they target. That program provides housing and an array of on-site services. The YMCA offers the Turning Point program in the Central region — near San Diego State. That’s a really good program. They use a big apartment complex so that the youth actually live in units dispersed in this apartment complex. Then there’s Trolley Trestles, who also have a transitional housing program for former foster youth. If youth are struggling, we want to assist them, and these programs are there for them.”
Independent Living Skills programs are provided by various independent contractors. Each contractor serves a specific area of the county, which is broken into six regions: Central, South Bay, North Inland, North Central, North Coast, and East. In the Central region, the program is offered by the YMCA.
Located on Centre Street in Hillcrest, the YMCA Youth and Family Services Center is a three-story, gray, ultramodern concrete structure. It stands out among the older houses of the neighborhood, most of which were built in the 1920s. Inside, warmly lit hallways lead to offices and meeting rooms. Dana Allen is in charge of the living-skills program for the Central region. Laura Mustari, her boss, is the executive director of Youth and Family Services. Serving 300 youths a year, the YMCA is the largest and was the first Independent Living Skills contractor in San Diego County.
Mustari recalls when the program started. “We had to provide services for every young person in the county who was targeted to the program. That was in 1990. In 1999 the county regionalized the program and broke it up into six districts — including this region.”
Allen explains the program. “What happens is, at 16 they’re referred to our program. We start working with them on all of the things that the program focuses on, such as education, employment, housing, health care, social skills, communications skills, almost any area you would need to be successful and live on your own.
“Each youth is assigned a case manager. We have classes in three areas of this region each week that cover all the skills. We have a youth center that is open here 35 hours per week. Once a month we have a workshop or special event where we focus on a topic — January was scholarship and financial-aid information, in February we took the youth on a tour of City College, and in March we did a tax-information workshop. Every Friday, we do a peer group at the youth center, and Papa John’s provides pizza for that, and we are also starting a movie night on Fridays following peer group. At the peer group, we have a facilitator from our staff, and a member from Teen Link Community Project comes over, and together they work the youth through a ten-week session.”
Allen notes that most of the kids in the program are working at a disadvantage they hope not to pass on to their own children. “Probably nine out of ten youth who attend are not parents, but they realize that they didn’t have good role models in parenting, so they’re excited to learn how they could be a good parent when that time in their life comes.”
Case managers are the critical link in the program, and among the many roles they take on for teens, Allen finds mentoring to be the most important. “Typically a teen in [the Independent Living Skills program] from foster care has been in a lot of different places — sometimes 14, 15, 16 different placements. Different homes, different foster parents, different schools. When you’re a teenager, you’re not very likely to get adopted. You’re going to be in foster care for the long haul so [your social worker needs] to get you stabilized in foster care. The social worker’s role is to make sure that the housing and living situation is stabilized and that legally everything is stabilized. We emphasize to our youth that the case manager is not another social worker. We’re not here to tell you what to do; we’re here to sit across the table from you and ask you what you want to do with your life. Because there is going to come a time when somebody is not going to be telling you where to move next or what school to go to or to get out of bed and do all these things. A time will come when you’re going to have to make some tough choices — adult choices. There are studies that show most youth leave home now at the average age of 26. Foster youth are leaving home at 18. And they tend to be even less equipped than youth growing up in a typical home. We’re asking them to do something quite incredible. What 16- or 17-year-old wants to start saving all of their money for an apartment, really planning and being very, very responsible for every area of their life? They want to be teenagers. They don’t want to have to think about when they’re 18 and 19. And, emotionally, many of them are much younger than that.