Soothing Growing Pains With Matching Grants

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When kids who grow up in foster care “become adults,” they’re more likely than their peers with family support to be homeless, get in trouble with the law and suffer from substance abuse or mental health problems. Most have a harder time finishing their education, and lack basic life skills such as money management, health maintenance and career building. In short, many don’t know how to take care of themselves.

And when they turn 21, they’re largely on their own.

Because eight out of 10 foster youth can’t rely on anyone but themselves after they “age out” of the system, according to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), and today there’s a higher percentage than before of foster kids who are adolescents, more attention is being paid to what happens to them after 21.

Despite a plan addressing just that, released by ACS last summer, and a brand new initiative to help these young adults financially, child welfare experts say there’s still a long way to go to address the needs of the roughly 1,000 people without any family support who leave the system every year.

“The aging-out process in New York City is a terrible crisis,” said Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of Children’s Village, an agency that provides a variety of services to New York’s most troubled foster children. “Our jails and homeless shelters are full with kids who were once in foster care.”

Mayor Bloomberg moved to address one aspect of this situation concretely when he announced the creation of the Youth Financial Empowerment program, aimed at giving foster children between the ages of 16 and 21 a leg up on personal finance. Youth enrolled in the program, developed by city agencies in conjunction with ACS, will receive 20 hours of personal finance training and savings accounts that the city will match $2 for every $1 saved.

The million-dollar program is being funded in part by the Center for Economic Opportunity, which committed $300,000. ACS will administer the Youth Financial Empowerment program and presently has $400,000 allocated toward it. Additional funds will come from charities like the United Way of New York and New Yorkers for Children.

Dominique Jones, ACS’s director for Youth Financial Empowerment, says the program will help 450 foster kids plan for their financial goals, and hopes to have 100 youth enrolled in the program by the end of the year.

“While we’ve made a lot of progress over the last decade keeping young children from having to enter foster care, the older kids who grew up in foster care and are now beginning lives as independent adults still face serious challenges,” Bloomberg said at a press conference introducing the initiative two weeks ago. “When they turn 21 and leave foster care, they immediately have to navigate a complicated and competitive world on their own, which can be very intimidating.”

Kohomban praised the new program, adding that Children’s Village also runs a dollar-for-dollar matching savings program for youth aging out of foster care.

ACS Commissioner John Mattingly said the new program would be “a critical piece of ACS’s system-wide effort to address the issue of youth aging out of foster care through its plan, Preparing Youth for Adulthood” (PYA).

Indeed, some would say it’s not just a critical piece of the $19 million PYA plan – but so far, it’s the only piece. City Councilman Bill de Blasio, chairman of council’s General Welfare Committee, said ACS is coming up short in meeting its own stated goals of helping foster children broadly transition into self-sufficient adulthood. At a recent hearing on the progress of PYA, de Blasio said he was not impressed with the effort so far.

“These foster youth do not have the safety net of parents whom they can rely on for a few months or years to save up money to get a place of their own, nor do they have the support a parent might offer in helping pay for college, pay for health insurance or find a job,” de Blasio said at a press conference before the June 21 hearing (which was before the financial plan was announced). “It is ACS’s responsibility to help these young people get ready to be out on their own and ACS is failing.”

At the hearing, ACS Deputy Commissioner for Family Permanency Services Jeanette Ruiz defended her agency’s steps forward, but was forced to acknowledge that PYA was a work in progress.

“While we’ve done a lot of practice innovations this past year that we’re building on, we still have a lot of work to do,” Ruiz said under questioning from de Blasio.

“In the past year, (ACS) has rebuilt the infrastructure of this office, trained staff throughout the child welfare system, and launched a number of ground-breaking initiatives,” Ruiz told the committee. “As we move deeper into implementation, we will continue to integrate this work into everything we do, especially our emphasis on placing youth with families that can serve as a permanent resource to them.”

The goal of preparing foster youth for self-sufficient independence is more pressing for ACS now than ever before, she said. “Our sense of urgency is heightened by the fact that, while New York City’s foster care census has declined overall in recent years, adolescents have come to comprise an even larger proportion of children in care,” Ruiz said. “Today, 42 percent of children in foster care are over the age of 12.”

As foster kids go, Pauline Gordon is a lucky one, with a promising school and home set-up. Gordon graduated from high school in Brooklyn last year and just finished her freshman year as an undergraduate nursing student at Lehman College in the Bronx. The city put Pauline and her twin sister – who come from a family with a history of mental illness – in foster care when they were 14 years old.

Gordon will age out of the system next year, but unlike so many of her peers – including her sister – she’ll have the support she needs from caring adults. Her foster mother will let her stay at home as long as she’s in school. But she’s hoping to spread her wings and get out on her own even sooner, taking classes on her own to sharpen her financial smarts.

She was excited about the announcement of the Youth Financial Empowerment program, especially the matching savings program. She said she’s planning on applying for the program and telling her friends at her foster care agency about it.

“It’s a good opportunity,” Gordon said. “I’m going to apply for it myself, but I was mostly thinking about it for my sister. She doesn’t have a savings account and she doesn’t have a permanent home like I do, so I’m not sure what she’s going to do when she ages out of the system.”

Fortunately for other foster children, who like Gordon will soon be out on their own, New York’s nonprofits have been working to fill the gap in developing successful programs to prepare them for adulthood. That’s one part of the PYA plan that seems to be moving steadily forward: the key role that nonprofit service providers can play.

Two years ago, the Heckscher Foundation for Children, which provides grants to nonprofit child welfare agencies, took an interest in the aging-out crisis. Senior program officer Julia Bator said they spent months working with service providers in the child welfare system to develop a “wish list” of programs they felt were missing from the lives of children aging out.

Both ACS and other nonprofits “are all set up to deal with the front door of foster care – abused and neglected babies and young children,” Bator said. “None of them were prepared to deal with the back door – creating model citizens out of troubled youth.”

Bator’s foundation ended up working with The Door, a Soho-based nonprofit that has been helping adolescents since the ’70s, and FEGS (Federation Employment and Guidance Service), one of the largest nonprofit human service providers in the country, to create The Academy, which provides “every kind of preparation for adulthood training course you can think of” to 80 foster kids, she said. They hope to have a total enrollment of 120 by the end of the year.

Kathleen McAnulty, assistant director of The Academy at FEGS in the South Bronx, said the program is flexible to meet the needs of each individual. “The needs of a 16 year old who has five more years to go before they leave the system are much different than the needs of someone who turns 21 next month,” McAnulty said.

“It’s important for us to teach these kids how to manage their money, take care of themselves and prepare them for work environments – but it’s just as important for us to give them hope for the future and to let them know that we care about them,” she added. “We want them to feel like they can come back to us in a year, after they’ve aged out, and keep coming back as long as they need support.”

Bator said ACS isn’t meeting the goals it set for helping foster kids aging out of the system outlined in Preparing Youth for Adulthood. But understanding that those kids need help and recognizing that it is a serious concern is a step in the right direction, Bator added.

“ACS isn’t hitting the mark now because their primary focus is on younger kids,” Bator said. “But at least they know that kids aging out aren’t getting the help they need and they’re shifting some of their focus onto those who are getting ready to leave the system.”

– Adam F. Hutton

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