Youth aging out of foster care struggle in 'real world'
Posted March 19
SHREVEPORT, La. — When Breanna Bullock turned 18 this year, she moved in with her boyfriend, got a job and became responsible for her own life.
But for Bullock, who currently lives in New Orleans, those choices were not an ideal way to strike out on her own. Her choices were about survival.
A young woman who had bounced between group and foster homes since she was 6 years old, Bullock said she found little help from the system that had sheltered her for more than 12 years. She also couldn't turn to biological family for help. Her father had died when she was 14, and her mother was in prison.
"I didn't have any financials, I didn't have a job, and my worker told me it was my responsibility," she said.
Bullock is one of 140 youth who aged out of the foster care system in Louisiana in 2016 — including 18 in Shreveport — and one of 884 who have aged out since 2012, according to DCFS reports.
When they age out, they must confront any number of adult responsibilities: Budgeting. Finding housing. Opening a bank account. Finding a job. Knowing how to remain enrolled in health insurance.
A Department of Children and Family Services report released in February found that many youth who age out frequently are unprepared to handle these realities of the real world: They are also more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, substance addiction and incarceration, according to the report.
That report calls for the Louisiana legislature to enact changes this year for older youth in the foster care system, including increased funding to the department for specialized staff, additional resources and extending foster care services to youth up to age 21 instead of 18.
Htet Htet Rodgers, currently 21 and a student at Northwestern State University, said she felt unprepared to age out of the system at 18. She had been required to complete a state-mandated independent living program instruction, covering everything from hygiene to opening bank accounts, but she said she wasn't ready for that information at age 14.
"It was not engaging to a 14-year-old, nor was it important to me then," she recalled. "I didn't think it would be worth anything to lodge random information into my head years before I needed it."
What was important to Rodgers, as a teenager, was whether she would ever receive a letter from her parents — who had been imprisoned in Burma since she was 10, the same age at which she and her brother had moved to Alexandria to live with an alcoholic relative, Rodgers said.
Rodgers found the woman she came to call "mom" — and who changed her life — after that relative eventually surrendered her and her brother to child services and she found herself in a foster home.
"I truly believe my success would not be without my foster mom as a support," she said, adding, "and without God, I know I wouldn't have been able to face the things I did and be the person I am today."
Now 21, Rodgers has been a part of the National Foster Youth Institute, shadowed congressmen, participated in the White House Hackathon and worked with Microsoft to develop an app that provides confidential assistance to mothers in addictive situations.
She's also a member of the Pentecostals of Alexandria, a psychology major and the speaker of the Senate in her university's student government association.
"My aspirations come from wanting to be more than just the typical foster kid," she said. "I wanted to be able to make the next generation's' lives better. I want to be someone that makes an influential impact to at least one person's life."
Akiva Robinson, currently 21 and employed at the Goodwill Independent Living Program in New Orleans, entered the foster care system when she was 7 years old. Robinson said the system placed her with relatives and in multiple foster care homes before she aged out of the system while living in Natchitoches.
"When you're in foster care, they shelter you," she said. "Aging out is scary because you don't know where to go or how to pick up the pieces."
Robinson said she tried to move back in with family after her 18th birthday but soon found herself saddled with the additional responsibilities of raising her siblings and buying groceries for the entire family.
She called getting her first job in New Orleans "a relief" but added that she would have appreciated a connection to the foster care system until she was 21.
"It took me until I was 20 to feel like I was doing something right. Those years would make a big difference," Robinson said.
Robinson said those who age out at 18 often are unwilling to reach out for help due to pride.
"They think they have everything figured out. They don't want to lean on anyone, and they don't have any back-up plans," Robinson said.
Delia Penton, a Minden foster parent who specializes in caring for older teens, said she's experienced that pride with many youth she has fostered.
"You try to tell them and they look at you like they know. They don't take it seriously," Penton said. "It's a depressing job because I see the future for these kids. I see that what they're doing isn't going to let them make it, but you can't make them understand."
A resolution passed in the 2015 Louisiana legislative session established a task force to study outcomes for youth aging out of the foster care system, prompted by the complete funding cut to the former Young Adult Program in 2013, according to a DCFS transition report.
The report noted that many older youth in foster care are not allowed to develop autonomy within group or foster homes. Examples from the report: "many youth are not allowed in the kitchen where they live, are not allowed to use the washer and drier."
Penton said she would love to see the age of foster care extended through 21.
"A child isn't ready at 18. Reality doesn't click in," she said. "Legislation should do something to extend it, give them somewhere to go, a foundation, affordable housing so they can get started."
A report released by DCFS in February notes that 23 other states and one federal tribe all have extended the age of foster care to 21 and notes the following benefits for youth:
- Gives youth more time to mature and learn from their mistakes.
- Gives youth more support during transition to adulthood.
- Prevents foster youth from becoming homeless.
- Keeps young adults connected to caretakers who know them.
- Gives youth a better chance of completing high school or HiSet diplomas/certificates.
- Gives caretakers more opportunities to find adequate living arrangements for young adults in transition.
"Most of these kids when they are 18 want to be out of the system. Anything connected to the state, they don't want it," said DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters. "When you talk to the 19 and 20 year olds, they say, 'I wish I could have participated.'"
To ease with that transition to adulthood, the department also is working to ensure that youth who age out are connected to at least one "deep and personal connection" to a caring adult, Walters said.
"It's the type of person you call when you run out of gas or your car breaks down in the middle of the night, the person they can celebrate that they got a job or passed a test," she said. "The reality is that is not always the case. The very idea that they have no one to come home to is heart wrenching."
In addition to extending the age of youth in foster care, the department also is seeking funding to establish a transition care center for youth and to hire additional, specialized staff, including 18 consultants and three managers for a total cost of slightly more than $1.3 million. The DCFS statewide budget in 2016 was $626.4 million, according to DCFS reports.
The department provides a number of services for older youth, including independent living stipends, case management, rent and utility deposits. But Robinson acknowledged additional funding for DCFS as one of the most important steps the state could take to help foster youth.
"It's not on DCFS because they don't have the funding to do all that we need them to do," she said.