Adulthood comes abruptly for youths in foster care, and, for many, the odds seem stacked against them.
‘‘They definitely have more challenges than your average kid who’s turning 18,’’ said Jane Wilson, who runs the statewide Montana Foster Care Independence Program, which helps teens as they ‘‘age out’’ of foster care.
This spring, two major studies looked at outcomes for youths aging out of foster care.
One study by the Casey Family Programs looked at adults, ages 20 to 33, who had been in foster care in Washington and Oregon. The study found that during their first year out of foster care, 22 percent were homeless for a day or more. They were more likely than their peers to have mental health problems and, although 80 percent were employed, one-third had incomes below the poverty level.
A second study by the Midwest Evaluation of Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, found only 40 percent of the young adults surveyed were employed.
The Montana Foster Care Independence Program tries to change those odds.
Montana’s program grew out of a federal act providing funds to states to assist young people up to age 21 as they left foster care. Under a statewide contract, services are provided by Tumbleweed, a Billings nonprofit created in 1976 to provide emergency services to youths in crisis and their families. In Montana, about 415 youths participate in the program.
At age 16 or older, teens in foster care start by making a transitional living plan, focusing on what they will do at age 18. The teens also go through life-skills assessments to look at their strengths and weaknesses.
‘‘When you realize what these kids have been through and survived, you want to cheer them on,’’ said Sally Leep, executive director of Tumbleweed.
Desiree Blackburn, 18, who spent much of her teen years in state custody or in foster care, has her own way of describing the struggles of teens transitioning out of foster care. The outlook, she said, is ‘‘way grim.’’
When Blackburn talks about her teen years, the incidents spill out like jumbled puzzle pieces, blocks of time spent here and there. Taken away from her parents at the age of 12, she went into treatment and then into foster care with a relative. Through treatment, her goal was to be reunited with her family, and, at age 16, she was released to her mother’s care.
‘‘After I went home, I totally understood why they took me away,’’ she said.
She slipped back into doing drugs, quit school, and spent time in shelter care at the Youth Services Center.
Blackburn talks about her ‘‘laundry-basket period,’’ a time when her possessions seemed to fit into a basket as she moved from place to place. ‘‘A lot of kids, as soon as they get out on their own, they fall to the ground,’’ she said. ‘‘The main thing with kids that get out of foster care is they say, ‘I’m free, I’m free.’ And the first thing they do is they go and see all their old friends. And then, once they go and see all their old friends, they go down.’’
In July 2004, Blackburn got her GED from a program at the Lincoln Center. A month later, she learned she was pregnant. She moved into her boyfriend’s home in January, and her son was born in early May. In January, she intends to start college and hopes to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
‘‘If I didn’t have Tumbleweed there to support me, I would have quit school and went back to my ways and worked a job and used the money on like a bottle or an 18-pack or something stupid,’’ she said. ‘‘You just need somebody there to be a support system and let you know that this is what you’re doing right. Because, if somebody isn’t there telling you what you’re doing right, you’re going to think everything you’re doing is wrong.’’
Tumbleweed can help teens starting out on their own to find an apartment, find and keep a job, further their educations or get plugged into community resources. The teens can get help with budgeting, social skills, nutrition issues or even personal hygiene.
Tumbleweed recently hired a mentor coordinator to recruit and train volunteer mentors to work with foster teens.
Sometimes, the only help the teens need is with the first month’s rent on an apartment of their own. Through the program, teens can apply for cash stipends and other assistance to complement their own efforts toward self-sufficiency. They are eligible to receive money for room and board.
‘‘It’s sort of a bridge to self-sufficiency, not an entitlement,’’ Wilson said.
Foster-care youths who enroll in a college or vocational program can also receive up to $5,000 a year.
‘‘If these kids go to college, they have no ability to go home every summer and live off mom and dad,’’ said Jen Porter, a program coordinator for Tumbleweed.
In the general population, age 18 is no longer the mark when most young adults become self-supporting, Porter said. The average age when most young adults are no longer receiving financial assistance from their parents has risen to 26, she said.
‘‘We want these kids to have all the chances possible to be successful,’’ Leep said. ‘‘We’re there to help them when they fall because they will fall – we know that. We just can’t expect an 18-year-old who’s been in an unstable environment all their life to get it right on the first try.’’
She describes how one young woman got in over her head on an expensive apartment and started bouncing checks. A case manager helped the teen negotiate with the bank to reduce overdraft fees and helped her get into a more affordable apartment.
‘‘In a biological family,’’ Leep said, ‘‘kids make mistakes, but they can always come back to mom and dad.’’
The two recent studies of foster care suggest many ways to improve outcomes, including strengthening transitional programs and cutting down on the number of placement changes and school changes during foster care.
The results of the Midwest study suggest that foster teens who exited the system at 19 had better outcomes than those who chose or were forced to leave care at 18. Young adults in the study who left care at 18 were more than 50 percent more likely than their peers who remained in care to be unemployed and out of school.
The Northwest study indicated that the more placements a youth experiences, the greater the risk for mental-health problems. A prior study, by the Child Welfare League of America, found that, when children change placements, they typically lose between four and six months of educational progress.
In Montana, Wilson often sees transition plans for older teens who have been through seven to 15 placements. Those numbers should be lower for the next generation of teens aging out of foster care, Wilson said. The state’s current emphasis on resolving foster care-cases within 18 months – either by reuniting the youth with his biological parents or through adoption – may already be having an effect on lowering those numbers and, perhaps, improving the outlook for teens aging out of foster care.