Cityview: Cut Loose

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It has been 12 years since a group of teenagers filed a lawsuit that ultimately required New York City to supervise adolescents in foster care until they turn 21–and prepare them to make it on their own once they leave. The judge in the case concluded that foster care agencies often forced unprepared young adults out of care once they turned IS, many of them landing directly in shelters, vacant buildings, public terminals and on the streets.

In response, the city agreed to provide adequate career counseling and training in skills such as finding an apartment, budgeting and shopping. Thus, the Independent Living Skills program was born.

Yet from the beginning, the city failed to articulate a clear direction for the program, and it has clearly been a failure. Of the approximately 1,000 young adults who age out of the system each year, far too many are still sent out into the world ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of finding a job and a home. Scores continue to end up in the city’s shelters, or worse, prison.

This year, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services set out to reform the independent living program. If the reforms are to succeed, they need to take seriously the lessons of front line staff like myself who have been directly involved with these teenagers.

I entered the foster care world fresh out of college, responding to an advertisement for an independent living caseworker at one of the city’s largest and most well-respected foster care agencies. I asked the interviewer, “What’s independent living?” He dryly responded, “That’s a good question.” He told me about the lawsuit and the city’s requirement that all foster care agencies provide 40 hours of independent living skills training annually to each adolescent aged 14 to 21. If that directive sounds vague, it was.

In the two years I worked there, our independent living program lacked focus and a set of achievable goals. Without them, the fledgling program began to dissolve. Now, some three years after I left, the program has withered even further on the social services vine. Today at my former agency, teens get little more than an occasional workshop, driving lessons and a monthly stipend check–an incentive for their participation.

Our first problem during my tenure was getting the foster care kids to the agency for our classes. The teens’ caseworkers received the new program with skepticism, often resenting having to expend so much effort into getting their charges to come to the agency on a weekend. Soon, to make it more manageable, the schedule of small and frequent workshops on a variety of specific topics–how to write a résumé, how to find an apartment, how to conduct yourself in an interview–devolved into day-long circus affairs scheduled once every few months. By the end of my time there, I found myself standing alone in front of 70 bored teen-agers for eight straight hours one Sunday trying to hold their interest with a sermon on the importance of budgeting.

Yet many of the kids could not even read. Inevitably, the whole premise of “independence” falls apart when adolescents don’t even have the basic reading skills to understand a lease or use the classifieds. We brought in an outside education counselor who found that over half of the kids living in our. group homes were dyslexic. We set up weekly reading workshops to help them. But again, we faced the problem that no one could convince the kids to attend class. And so, after five weeks, citing a lack of interest, the agency ended the reading classes.

Slowly, as that first year stumbled to a close, the program degenerated into an unbridled search for the quickest route to the magic number of 40 hours. In addition to the occasional seminar, we took the teens to Action Park, a New Jersey amusement park. That counted for eight hours. We took them away to camp–16 more hours. One night we showed the film Stand By Me–two more. And that was it. The year ended, and we had a file cabinet full of paper work to show we had lived up to our 40-hour obligation.

As the program dwindled, the city’s foster care budget was shrinking. Higher-ups at the agency began diverting independent living money into other areas, and once they tasted that fruit there was no turning back. Today, the program no longer has an office, director or caseworker.

The agency I worked for–and the program as a whole–needs to refocus and redefine its goals. I would offer two immediate changes.

First, take 14- to l7-year-olds out of all the workshops, aside from classes on family planning. No one can realistically expect an eighth-grader to be interested in lessons about finding an apartment or saving money by buying in bulk. Fourteen-year-olds, particularly those in foster care, have more pressing things to worry about.

The workshops should instead be reserved for teens on the verge of aging out of foster care and, importantly, those who already have. Instructors could then work with the very real situations these teens are facing. They could help young adults understand how the job world works, how to find affordable housing and how to get government benefits if they need them.

Second, the agencies should refocus their energies with younger teens on basic educational programs. No child who ages out of foster care lacking basic reading and mathematical skills has a reasonable chance at becoming truly independent.

All adolescents must be taught basic living strategies to become happy, functioning adults. But those aging out of foster care, lacking support from their own families, need this desperately. Without such help, the fall can be quick and precipitous.

Joe Keith is a PhD candidate in English and comparative literature at Columbia University.