For Youth Leaving Care, A Way To Stay Connected

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Two years ago, David DeLaurentis was living in restrictive housing and attending a substance abuse program at Children’s Village, a residential facility for foster children north of the city. It was a rough period, and the future – when foster kids “age out” of care and fend for themselves – was uncertain at best.

Fortunately for him, a new program for youth transitioning out of foster care was emerging on the scene around the same time. Called The Academy, it was designed with foster youth like DeLaurentis in mind – young people with weak social supports and significant needs. Of those who age out each year, the vast majority nationwide have to rely primarily on themselves. Without some institution to attach themselves to, experts say that many of the 950 or so foster youth in New York City who reach this point become homeless or enter the criminal justice system.

Instead, DeLaurentis, now 20, has had supervised internships and unsupervised jobs, and now lives on his own, with Section 8 rental assistance, in a Harlem apartment building with supportive services. He recently started a new job at Duane Reade and is studying to get his drivers license to apply for a job at UPS, where he was working as a seasonal employee last year. DeLaurentis credits his stability to the Academy, which is run by the social services giant FEGS and funded by the Heckscher Foundation for Children. He mentions multiple staff members by name, such as his advisor Mark Virella, program manager at the Academy, citing their support getting him through.

“FEGS gave me the motivation,” said DeLaurentis, who frequently stops by the Bronx office for events or just to hang out. “I can always go there for help.”

When the Academy opened its doors in January 2007 after a year and a half of research and development, it brought a new kind of service to New York City for youth exiting care. Child welfare professionals say that support and services for this particular group have been fragmented and insufficient because of inflexible requirements from government, limited funds and social workers’ overly large caseloads. This program, which currently has 200 active members, aims to provide those young people transitioning out of foster care with comprehensive, directed support. Housed in the South Bronx, the Academy has a hallmark program design that allows members to fail, disappear, and return for help regardless of how long they’ve been away, and a primary advisor model that allows focused attention on each individual’s needs.

“It was surprising that there were so few organizations addressing the needs of this population,” said Julia Bator, senior program officer at the Heckscher Foundation. “There are ones picking up the pieces, but not working with these young people ahead of time.”

By the time the pieces are being picked up, achieving stability and independence gets harder and harder. Most often the young people approaching their 21st birthday, when foster care officially ends in New York, have been in multiple homes in multiple years, alternating between foster families and group care, at times disappearing somewhere in between, their whereabouts and status unknown to their case workers. Without adequate arrangement for when independence arrives, these young adults run a high risk of aging into homelessness or incarceration. (A study of New York City’s street homeless youth released last year [see p. 21] estimated that 29 percent had experience with the foster care system, and 27 percent had experience with jail or prison.) Other options include moving back with the families they were removed from in the first place, or moving into supportive housing, such as Section 8 or a Supervised Independent Living Program. However, many housing options require employment or an employment history, and could have a long waiting list. Without proper job skills, a GED or effective interpersonal skills, independence gets increasingly difficult to attain.
In the development stage in 2006, the Heckscher Foundation assembled a team of five foster care agencies – Good Shepherd Services, the Jewish Child Care Association, SCO Family of Services, Safe Space and the Children’s Village – and two youth services providers, FEGS (Federation of Employment and Guidance Service, Inc.) and The Door, which is no longer involved. After the initial investment to cover items such as small grants for the participating foster care organizations, the program costs $5,000 per youth per year. After this June, the funding responsibility will move to the participating agencies themselves, with Heckscher filling in as needed, though Bator believes the program is well on its way to sustainability. In the six months that the program was developing, the involved organizations met to discuss what each lacked, what they needed and what their strengths were. They spoke directly with foster care youth, who expressed a desire for jobs and primary advisors for each of them, as well as smaller items like MetroCards.

The Academy is based on an individualized focus on each young person’s specific needs and a high tolerance for erratic behavior. When a youth is referred by his foster care agency, he meets with a counselor for an assessment. If he needs 1500 points on his GED and an internship, that’s what staff will aim for him to attain, said Bator. This kind of attention is possible in part because of advisors’ smaller caseloads, the status of being outside “the system” of foster care bureaucracy and agencies – which many youngsters deeply distrust and therefore won’t return to – and being situated under the extensive FEGS umbrella, which includes a breadth of services and resources already in existence.

“A lot of schools don’t like our kids because they don’t perform well,” said Harriet Mauer, director of social services at Good Shepherd Services. “A lot of our kids are turned off to the system; they get depressed and need someone who will really stick with them.”

This approach could be a help for someone like Virgen, 18, a writer for the foster youth magazine Represent. Virgen, who did not want her last name to be used, has lived in a group home with a dozen other girls since she was 15, but hardly knows them because she tends to stay in her room. She has been hospitalized for depression and cutting. The centralized nature of the Academy’s services would help her greatly – as she lives on Staten Island, attends college in the Bronx, goes to Manhattan each week to see a therapist, and meets with a case worker twice a month in the Bronx. She has hardly thought about a job, her future or what she is going to do when she turns 21, and she recognizes that she still needs the support of foster care.

“I’m not thinking about tomorrow, I’m just thinking about today,” Virgen said. “I’m just hoping for the best.”

With such rocky lives, this population tends to appear and disappear from services and programs. Sometimes the reason is personal instability; other times it is the need for independence. At the Academy young people disappear for these reasons, as well as the need to test whether the program will still accept them after being away for a few weeks, or a few months.

“It’s a shocker for them that they are still a part of the program even if they are AWOL from their agency,” said Virella, the Academy advisor.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Bator. “It’s how a family works – they don’t give up on their teenagers.”

But agencies and organizations are often unable to provide this unwavering support. The Academy is an “excellent model,” says Dominique Jones, assistant commissioner of the Office of Youth Development at the city Administration for Children’s Services.

“What exists doesn’t have the capacity to serve this particular population. We need to figure out how to replicate [the Academy],” which is very time-, staff- and resource- intensive, Jones said.

Whether or not the Academy’s specific model is replicable, other programs do exist that also offer a multi-faceted approach to independence and job readiness. Programs like Getting Beyond the System, a 12-week seminar offered through the Youth Advocacy Center, teaches self-advocacy and communication skills, as well as how to depersonalize various issues, with the goal of preparing young people for employment. The course concludes with an informational interview with a professional in the student’s desired career field and can help lead to an internship, recommendation letter or employment in that field. The seminar places no academic restrictions on students and only requires that participants are willing and committed to being there. However, if a student is asked to leave because of poor attendance, incomplete homework or lack of a “collegiate manner,” it is up to the agency they came from to look into the reasons for the behavior and help address that issue.
Even with its meet-you-where-you-are approach, the Academy is not equipped to address every single need of its youth directly. If a young person has such a low reading level that they are not even recognizing letters, staff look into other options to tackle that problem while also addressing issues they can accommodate, such as getting an internship. A young person with this kind of literacy challenge might be offered an internship at the Horticultural Society of New York, for example. For other young people with less severe needs, consistent support and guidance from Academy staff – and encouragement from a friend or two – is all that’s needed.

This is true for one such student, Javier Eurie, 21, who is still transitioning into independence. On Mondays through Thursdays, Eurie goes to a paid internship at the Academy after attending classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and on Fridays he works at his internship during the day. On the weekends he might take a trip to Six Flags with his friends or take his 2-year-old son to the movies. Although his son lives with his own mother and grandmother during the week, on the weekends he spends time with his father going to the movies, playing in the park, or sleeping over in the subsidized apartment where Eurie lives on his own. Sometimes Eurie gets free movie tickets or a gift certificate to JC Penney from the Academy, and as an intern he gets a weekly MetroCard. Some days he wears a shirt and tie to work, though he says he would dress up more if he could afford to. He likes most of his classes, except for Psychology, which he claims has too much reading, and he likes that most of his classmates are mature and focused. One classmate he has become friends with, Michelle, 40, pushes him along from time to time.

“She motivates me,” Eurie said. “She says, ‘I know it’s hard for you, but you are almost through the semester. You have to do this for your son.’”

“She always brings my son into it,” he said, laughing. “I want to do good for my son.”

– Jessica Glazer

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