In a midtown diner, Vaesna Hover and his girlfriend, Daniella Anderson, clutch hands. Both 19, they have lived what seems like a million lives in just as many foster homes. In the last three years, Daniella has lived in every borough but Staten Island and in 12 group homes, where, she says, “no one cares whether I go to school or have a job, just as long as staff can write in their book that I’m out of the house during the day.”
Vaesna arrived in the United States as an infant from Cambodia. Since then, he has weathered abuse, as well as illness from improper psychiatric medication. He landed, angry and abandoned, in group homes, mental hospitals, and, once, jail. “I was always acting up, getting into fights,” Vaesna says. “I was cocky, quick-tempered, and didn’t care about life. I didn’t expect to be alive by now, or at least I thought I’d be in jail.” Vaesna now lives in a group home in Bayside, Queens, with eight other boys.
Lately, Vaesna and Daniella have begun thinking less about what they’ve been through and more about where they’re going. The big question is whether they have what it will take to live on their own. Their 21st birthdays will mark the moment when the city’s legal obligation to provide them with a bed, food, clothing and medical care ends. They look toward that moment with a mix of hope and fear: eager to escape group home life, but also shaken by accounts they’ve heard from other young people trying to survive without a family.
“I’ve heard no good stories,” says Daniella. One friend recently left her Harlem group home with no savings, no job, no immigration papers, and no place to live except her boyfriend’s apartment. “Most people leave care and go on welfare, get locked up, or come back to some system, asking for help they should have received while in foster care,” says Daniella.
Child welfare experts say that Daniella and Vaesna are right to worry. The nearly 1,000 young adults who leave the city’s foster care system each year often find themselves unprepared for life on their own. According to a new study from the Youth Advocacy Center, about one-third of the teens who plan to move on to independent living have spent more than 10 years in foster care.
The city does not track what happens to these teens once they leave, but a 2000 study by the Citizens’ Committee for Children found that 17 percent of youth at one agency went directly to homeless shelters. In 1999, Covenant House discovered that about one-third of the young adults in its homeless shelter had once lived in foster care. The few studies on the subject confirm that nationwide, many former foster kids never complete high school and they end up homeless and on welfare. About one-quarter of the men end up incarcerated.
The city does make some efforts to prepare foster teens for the inevitable. Daniella, like about 5,100 other young people in the city, is enrolled in an independent living program. The program provides teens with a $750 cash grant when they leave care, a small stipend for housing if they exit before turning 21, and 14 hours a year of classes in living skills, such as how to cook or balance a checkbook. But Daniella says that her monthly classes are poorly attended. The group home staff, she says, “don’t monitor or care if you go to the independent living classes.”
In December, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services confirmed that many young people don’t attend the independent living classes or receive the money; the Citizens’ Committee found that most aren’t informed about the funds or find they’re too much of a hassle to get. Those who do secure the cash may be surprised to discover that it doesn’t go far. Says Daniella, “All of the agencies I’ve been in condition you to think that $750 is enough to survive.”
While Daniella dutifully continues to attend her classes–cycling through the same lessons every year–Vaesna is part of an experiment in how to do things differently. He participates in the Work Appreciation for Youth (WAY) Scholarship program run by the private agency Children’s Village. Vaesna feels WAY gives him an edge. Daniella agrees.
The program targets the youth most likely to crash after they leave foster care–those who live at highly supervised “residential treatment centers” because their behavior isn’t manageable anywhere else. WAY Scholarship focuses on the building blocks they’ll need to thrive: working and saving money for their education, with matching contributions from the program of up to $500 a year. Each participant gets a paid mentor for five years after they enter the program, no matter where they go during that time.
The idea is to get teens to recognize their potential to become successful employees, and to view education as a means to a satisfying career, says Children’s Village’s Arthur Donowski, who helps other agencies launch their own WAY programs. “If you begin to look at work as an enjoyable experience,” says Donowski, “you want to go to school because it will set you up with a better job.”
Vaesna, who has been a WAY Scholar for nearly four years, complains that the program tries to take too much credit for his successes. Last year, he got a 3.2 GPA at Queensborough Community College, where he was studying computer science before he took a hiatus. When Daniella says dreamily, “I would like a mentor, someone who would look out for me,” Vaesna smirks. “Like a parole officer,” he says. “When I leave the group home, I don’t want nothing to do with the group home.”
But he does allow that WAY is partly responsible for transforming him from what he calls “little Vaesna,” who arrived at his group home five years ago prepared to fight almost anyone, to, he says grandly, “the man who stands before you now.”
Today, Vaesna is working at Burger King and planning to return to school this fall. Soon, he’ll be moving to an agency-run apartment. He worries about saving money and whether he’ll find the kind of job he wants; one, he hopes, that “I can survive on. Or past surviving, better than surviving, like making it.”
The young men in WAY Scholarship come from some of the most horrific places a kid can be: juvenile detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, trails of foster placements gone awry. When they become WAY scholars, they sign a contract saying that no matter what trouble they get in, they will always come to their mentor. If a boy won’t cooperate, it is the mentor’s job to find him.
Many have had no steady adults in their lives. “They’re used to this rotating paternal guidance in their life; that’s what you’re trying to break,” says mentor Nick Stewart. “You’re trying to show them that someone will come into their life and be consistent.”
Having an adult who holds them to high expectations while providing them with unconditional support not only gives the young people someone who looks out for them, but also teaches them how to build relationships with adults. Steve Cohen, staff director of the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel advising the city’s Administration for Children’s Services on reforms, says that those skills are critical for survival after foster care. “This system needs to pay a lot more attention to connections with adults,” says Cohen. “No one at age 19, 20 or 21 can live without adults.”
Nan Dale saw that firsthand when she first headed Children’s Village’s Dobbs Ferry campus and sent boy after boy out “to fragile, vulnerable homes or no homes at all.” Boys who had returned to the city showed up again seeking help–to find jobs or homes, or even to get clean from drugs. Dale thought she knew what was needed: a program to teach teens work habits and skills, and to inspire them to enjoy working. They also needed someone standing by them, prepared “to work with an in-your-face adolescent that may not want this kind of adult person in their life.”
With the help of a private donor, in 1984 that idea became WAY. The program is still largely funded by that anonymous supporter. (The agency claims the program costs a little over $3,000 per year, per child.) Last year, the Child Welfare League of America published a study looking at what happened to the program’s graduates.
Researchers only tracked participants who remained in the program for more than two years, leaving out the one in five who dropped out before then (indeed, more than one-third of that group ended up incarcerated). Even so, the study suggests that with the right kind of support, high-risk youth can have a chance out in the world. The study tracked 66 young adults, virtually all from poor city neighborhoods, classified as special education students and considered to be highly troubled. Fifteen years later, they had low rates of homelessness and criminality compared with other poor young people, as well as in comparison with a group of Children’s Village clients who were instead given independent living information in the mail and support over the phone.
Ninety-five percent of WAY alumni had no state incarceration record. They also completed high school or equivalency exams at rates almost 20 percent higher than African American and Latino students in the city. The study tracked down 39 graduates and found that 81 percent were working, making an average of $23,000.
There are stars among them, like Lamar Williams, who, at 24, makes more than $80,000 a year working with computers. Still, says Candace Rashada, director of the program, “My real success stories are the kids who are still plodding every day.”
Prospective WAY Scholars must apply for the program, so that participation is their choice. As long as they have a C average and meet a few other basic requirements, they’ll get in. Today, 55 of the 120 boys 13 years and older at the Dobbs Ferry residential treatment center participate, and about 70 more, including Vaesna, live in other homes.
Boys at Children’s Village gain work experience at jobs on campus. “We set up work sites so that kids have work experience in a controlled environment, where they can make mistakes under trained youth professionals,” says Donowski. “Instead of your first part-time job being flipping burgers where if you screw up you get fired, in our environment you do get fired, but you also get counseling. All the rough edges get worked out so that your first work experience is a successful one, not a negative.”
The teens get stipends of about $2 to $4 an hour. These jobs, manned after school in two two-hour shifts, keep the campus buzzing with purpose. As 3:30 and the start of the first work shift near, boys amble through the woodsy grounds, heading for their jobs. In the cottage where dogs are trained to work with the disabled, a young man furrows his brow as he brushes and blow-dries a very wet golden retriever. At another work site, a teen in baggy jeans carefully measures wood for a bench to be donated to the Dobbs Ferry library.
David, 17, didn’t think he’d be alive now. He remembers “wilding out” and breaking a staff member’s leg the first night he arrived at Children’s Village five years ago. Now he looks back on the jobs he held as a turning point for his self-perception. “It was easy,” he says. “I just did village store, and dog training. I was Icee man for a little while. That’s how I got known around campus.” It was at the store that David’s supervisor encouraged him to become a WAY Scholar.
Three years later, David praises the program and especially his mentor, who recently helped land him a $500 scholarship for college. “She’s mad cool,” he says. “She’s more like a momma, auntie, anything. She’ll fight for me.”
Daniella says that all this is a far cry from the help she gets. “All the independent living programs I’ve ever been to gave us a stipend,” she says. “People go only to get that money. We’re not looking at the future. We’re looking to the end of the month, when we get the check. But Vaesna’s program is long-term. If they save, they end up with a future. They’re teaching them to save.”
Recently, ACS announced it would make $2,700 available each year for every young person on the road to independent living. Brian Moran, who quit his job this May as ACS’ assistant commissioner of Independent Living Services, says that won’t be enough. He adds that “the greatest question” is why ACS itself hasn’t yet embarked on an effort like WAY. All it would take, he says, is getting the right people together in a room to draft a proposal. “With such a track record for a success” he says, “there’s simply no excuse for ACS not to be replicating it.”
Kendra Hurley is co-editor of Foster Care Youth United, a magazine written by and for teenagers in foster care.