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With adolescents now constituting about half of the city’s foster care population, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has for the first time released a plan for dealing with youth transitioning out of foster care.

According to the Preparing Youth for Adulthood (PYA) plan, made public earlier this summer, ACS will eliminate Independent Living Programs, which have been the focus of the foster care system’s aging-out process since 1999. Instead, more funds will be given to foster care agencies to create programs that will meet goals outlined by ACS, said Jess Dannhauser, chief of staff to ACS Commissioner John B. Mattingly.

The PYA plan delineates measurable outcomes against which ACS and its contracting foster care agencies can be held accountable. ACS’s new stated goals include connecting youth with caring adults who will support them once they leave the foster care system, ensuring that youth have stable living arrangements, improving preventive health services, increasing the number of youth attaining high school diplomas and attending institutions of higher education, and teaching youth skills needed to acquire full-time jobs.

Beginning next year, ACS will establish baseline measurements for the percentage of youth with high school diplomas and GEDs, the percentage of youth entering accredited post-secondary educational or vocational programs, and the number of youth with children of their own. The new data are designed to help measure the impact of the PYA plan. By the end of 2005, there were 18,968 children in foster care, 10,028 of whom, or 53 percent, were age 12 and above. By comparison, at the end of 2002, there were 25,479 children in foster care, 11,605 of whom, or 45.5 percent, were age 12 and above.

ACS is now “focusing not only on the problem areas of adolescents, but on the aspirational values that all parents have for their own children. Goals like college, becoming independent,” said Rose Anello, the associate executive director for public affairs for the Citizen’s Committee for Children.

In order to achieve its goals, ACS will distribute $19 million among foster care agencies, up from the $13.5 million currently being spent on Independent Living Programs. That breaks down to about a $1,000 increase to foster care agencies per teen, Dannhauser said. In October, foster care agencies will submit plans for how they will spend the funds, according to Dodd Terry, assistant commissioner of the Office of Youth Development at ACS.

Independent Living Programs employ classroom-based instruction in skills like cooking, money management, and job searching to teach adolescents how to be independent. But, according to the report, PYA represents ACS’s effort to move away from the narrow concept of “independent living” to embrace the broader concept of youth development.

Cathleen Clements, director of public policy and client advocacy at the Children’s Aid Society, agreed this was a good idea. “Sitting and talking to kids in a classroom is not very effective. It’s a really poor way to try to work with kids,” Clements said.

The Independent Living Programs are “a waste of time,” said Loren Robinson, 19, who is in foster care. They are “not well thought-out workshops,” he said. Robinson, who is looking to attend the New York City College of Technology next year, is head of Development, Education, Empowerment, Practice (D.E.E.P.), a youth leadership program. “All the youth in foster care don’t have a chance at what I’ve had so far,” said Robinson. “ I’m one of the lucky ones.”

The plan aims to address problems faced by teenagers leaving the system who often find themselves out of work, struggling with substance abuse and mental health problems, and facing a grim future. The $300 per month housing subsidy that is available to teens is hard to get, and public housing vouchers have been frozen for more than a year, according to Clements. “Too often [teens] end up in the shelter system,” Dannhauser said.

To address these problems, the PYA plan was developed through a collaborative six-month effort by ACS staff, several foster care agencies, and young adults in foster care, Dannhauser said. Even with the proposed changes, though, youth can still sign themselves out of foster care once they reach 18.

“ACS is taking on very clearly, publicly, an issue that has been across the country very difficult,” said Dannhauser. Internally, ACS has already begun implementing some of the changes. The “shift in dialogue has begun already,” said Terry. The publication of the PYA plan is “memorializing changes in ACS that have been going on for a long time,” he said.

Many of the changes have occurred in the Office of Youth Development (OYD), where the nonprofit group New Yorkers For Children has helped create an “adolescent laboratory” composed of pilot programs to help transitioning teens. Among the programs are the College and Vocational Pathways Program, various employment initiatives, a Youth Advocacy Center partnership, and a website targeted at foster youth. OYD will also provide technical assistance to foster care agencies in areas like program development and private funding.

About the PYA plan, Clements from the Children’s Aid Society said, “We want to see it implemented and we want to see it implemented in a very teen-friendly way.”

– Iman Hassan

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