“So the case manager helps that youth establish a goal. Maybe it’s ‘I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from high school’ or ‘I want to get my own apartment’ or ‘I want to go to City College’ or ‘I want to go to Berkeley’ or ‘I want to be a mechanic’ — whatever it is. They help them coordinate and organize everything in their life so they can work toward that goal.”
“Below the surface,” Mustari says, “the case manager is almost like a substitute parent.”
Another problem Allen finds is that the survival skills that foster kids have acquired aren’t always conducive to a stable adult life. “These youth are very resilient, and they’ve learned how to survive day to day. In their experiences growing up, they didn’t know what next week was going to be like. They get in a mind-set that ‘I just can’t plan long term. Am I going to have a place to live tomorrow night? Will I have food on my table tonight?’ That’s the mentality of most of the foster youth. The case manager tries to empower the youth by getting them to plan long term and see that if you say you want to be, say, a football star — there’s a certain way to get there. And along the way you might find that it really isn’t what you want to do, and there’s a lot of other options.”
Like Cadena and Shorack, Mustari says the biggest threat emancipated foster kids face is homelessness. ymca Youth and Family Services has had some success in reducing that prospect. “A couple of years ago, we opened a pilot project called Transitional Living. We had a young woman who had been in the program with us from 16 to 18, and her case manager worked with her and placed her in City College. About six months later she was homeless again, living with an abusive boyfriend. So we saw the need, but there wasn’t a lot of funding out there at the time. The local Family Foundation provided us with some seed money, and we opened up a 4-bed transitional living program for young people aging out of foster care called Turning Point. It’s now a 20-bed facility, and we’ve gotten some additional operating money.”
“What literally happens to many of the youth,” Allen says, “is on their 18th birthday they are kicked out of foster care. The foster parent is not receiving payment for them anymore, so if that foster parent is only in it for the money, they’ll kick that kid out on his 18th birthday. Just to give you a visual, many youth don’t have many belongings, but they do have a few — you can imagine moving every few months, you’ll just keep what you need. A lot of them don’t even have luggage. So they will walk out with just a trash bag over their shoulder. Where are they going to go? They’ve been taken away from Mom or Dad — that’s not a safe place. They’ve moved around so much that a lot of them haven’t established a real solid, core support group in terms of friends, or they’ve chosen abusive partners because that’s kind of their mode of operating — getting attached to people who can’t meet their emotional needs — so they get themselves in a really dysfunctional relationship. Or they have parents that are really dysfunctional and the parents need the foster youth to take care of them. Finally, the youth don’t have credit, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to go get my own apartment,’ but the reality is, you have to have a really good job. You can’t just make minimum wage and have your own apartment. So Turning Point is a really good alternative for them.”
Foster kids face some negative stereotypes. The most common, as Allen describes it, is “ ‘Oh, he’s in foster care? He must be a bad kid’ or ‘He must have done something wrong.’ When in fact, 99.9 percent of the time they are taken out of their home, not for something they have done but because they have been abused or neglected in some way. Many have not had positive role models in their formative years, which is why there is a higher rate of incarceration. They’re lacking a mentor or someone consistent in their life to engage with or be a leader and guide. Probably about 25 to 30 percent of the kids in [the Independent Living Skills program] are on some kind of probation, but they don’t cause us any problems. It’s a voluntary program. Juvenile court judges are starting to crack down on social workers, saying, ‘You need to be referring the youth to this program.’ We can’t take them out of the home, tell them it’s better for them to be here, then at 18 wish them good luck and hope everything works out for them. We don’t back away and go in a corner. We try to figure out some angle where we can reach the youth. The reality is, the youth have had numerous social workers at that point in their life, so the tendency is that they don’t want another one.
“Even though we have a smaller percentage of youth who are 18 or older,” Allen continues, “we service them until they turn 21. That’s a smaller percentage of our youth, but more of our time goes to that population. It’s because they’re the ones that are homeless, they’re the ones that need a job right away, have medical issues, and so forth. What we try to work with them on is basic stuff like getting interviewing attire for them, get donations of bags [luggage] for them. The case manager is always asking, ‘What’s the barrier in this youth’s life?’ He really wants to make things happen, and that case manager is going to do whatever he can. We’re trying not to create dependency, but independence.”