Older teens left behind by Kentucky's foster-care program

little support: 'it leaves me lost'

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comNovember 6, 2011 

Clairessa Johnson has been trying her best to make ends meet, but the 19-year-old mother of two often feels hopeless.

Johnson was recently evicted from her apartment because she could not pay rent and water and electric bills. Since then, Johnson and her 11-month-old daughter, Love Roberts, have been staying with a friend in a quiet apartment community in Lexington.

She's saving what she can from a $7.25 an hour part-time job at Arby's so she can buy a car. And she wants to regain custody of a 2-year-old daughter, who stays with her paternal grandmother.

Johnson, whose primary source of income stems from the $225 she gets each month in state aid for her daughter, has faced many roadblocks since she left the state's foster care system last year.

Most days, she puts Love on a bus to day care and then takes another bus to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where she's taking basic classes so she can one day be a nurse.

Johnson is in need of help. Though there is a provision that would allow her to extend her stay in foster care until she is 21, she says the cabinet for Health and Family Services has denied her request.

"It leaves me lost," said Johnson.

Johnson is fighting to be among a group of about 556 foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 who have extended their stay in foster care. That allows young adults to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other vital services until they turn 21.

From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, the most recent time for which data was available, there were approximately 7,000 Kentucky children of all ages in foster care on any given day. In that same period, 531 foster children turned 18 and left state custody.

The department spent a total of $170,902,700 for all foster care, including extended commitments, in fiscal year 2011. The cabinet does not track its expenses for foster children by type of commitment, so there is no single report that captures how much the state spends on children in extended commitment.

Johnson's situation hints at a problem in which some foster children in Kentucky face homelessness after they age out of the system, according to Earl Washington, a Lexington social worker and former foster child who has been advocating for Johnson.

"They are forced to deal with society when they don't have the social skills or the independent living skills to be successful," Washington said. "To think that these kids who were in the system for years — some since they were babies — are going to magically be successful when they are 18 is foolish."

Advocates are pushing for more consistent services from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for foster children once they turn 18 because they say it provides them with the type of structure they need to become productive members of society. It's a lot like the stability provided to a child who grows up with parents or guardians who assist them through college rather than putting them out once they turn 18.

Some of the teens leaving foster care have mental illnesses, learning disabilities, or alcohol and drug problems. Some have children before they are 18. And those who go to college or a training program with the state's help don't always get the everyday support they need, advocates said.

"These youth aging out of foster care are some of the most vulnerable young people that we have," said Jerry Cantrell, CEO of Bellewood Homes for Children, which contracts with the state to operate foster care and independent living programs in Louisville and Lexington. "Without any support 75 percent of them fail."

That's why Johnson has reached back.

This summer, a Cabinet for Health and Family Services hearing officer issued a preliminary ruling, saying Johnson should be allowed to remain a foster child.

Johnson said social workers have told her that a final order issued did not uphold the ruling.

Washington said he's helped Johnson apply for housing, but it might be months before she is in her own apartment.

"She is trying hard," Washington said.

Getting an extension

Cantrell said many state social workers make sure foster children who turn 18 are aware of their options. That includes having an array of services by staying in foster care or for those who want out, applying for federal grant money for education, training and living expenses. But Cantrell said some teens have workers "who don't explain services to the kids in their care. Those kids don't have much protection."

Washington — who helps lead Fostering Goodwill, a non-profit advocacy group, and heads the independent living program at Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children and Youth — agreed. He said some foster children nearing 18 "are not made aware of all the rights and the resources that could help them."

In response to the criticism, cabinet spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said state caseworkers begin working with teens around their 16th birthday to develop their independent living skills, such as money management, job preparation and basic home economics.

By the time the individuals are 171/2, caseworkers are required to outline a plan for their transition to independence including whether they want to recommit.

Teens on extended commitment are under the court's jurisdiction and have specific case plans, Midkiff said.

Foster children turning 18 have six months to decide whether to extend their commitment to the state.

Midkiff said it's initially up to the teens to decide whether to extend their commitment. If they decide not to stay in state care, the cabinet provides them information about resources available in the community.

A foster child who wants an extension has to make the request to a family or district court judge and the cabinet has to agree.

Some of those who have extended their commitment live in apartments, group homes, with foster parents or in college dorms.

Starting from scratch

Advocates say foster kids need at least one year to decide whether they want to stay in foster care after they turn 18.

William Wells, a former foster child, says he wasn't given that much time to decide.

Wells, 24, of Fleming County says a social worker gave him a week to decide whether he wanted to extend his commitment to the state. When he could not decide, workers in the group foster home he was in handed him a bus ticket to Louisville.

Wells said he wandered the streets.

"It was night. It was getting cold," he recalled.

Someone on the street told him about a homeless shelter that he ended up using as a home base for about two years.

Later, he found an independent living program that allowed people to stay until they are 24.

After leaving foster care, said Wells, "you have to start from scratch."

It's not unusual for foster children in Kentucky to end up homeless once they turn 18.

Mary Kate Poling, president and CEO of Brooklawn Child and Family Services in Louisville, said she knew of one case in August in which a social worker took someone with behavior problems to a homeless shelter just before the child turned 18.

Midkiff said the cabinet "recognizes that at age 18 some youth may not be adept at weighing their options. However, the cabinet has no authority to make those determinations for them." She also said the cabinet "cannot confirm or deny that youth have requested social workers to drop them off at shelters, but the cabinet is unaware of such arrangements."

"When youth do not extend their commitment, they assume the responsibility for making decisions about their living arrangements," Midkiff said. "The youth may have made arrangements to continue living with the (now former) foster parents, they may have made the decision to move in with friends, or to return to the home of biological family members. If the youth's plan is not achievable, staff will counsel the youth about safe alternatives."

Ginny Ramsey, a co-director at a homeless program in Lexington, said she comes in contact each month with three or four former foster children who have left the system within the past six months.

Ramsey said many former foster children who end up homeless are mentally ill or have behavior problems.

"That's why they are so disconnected. Nobody wants to fool with them. ... When they age out there isn't the next step for them," said Ramsey,

'A pass-fail mentality'

In the 2012 General Assembly, some former foster children and leaders of private child caring agencies are going to push for improved laws and regulations for young adults in the program who are between the ages of 18 and 21. Kentucky Youth Advocates Deputy Director DeWayne Westmoreland is among those working on some recommendations.

One movement called True Up is trying to improve the situation of children aging out of foster care. True Up is getting help from former foster child Frank Harshaw, now the CEO of an energy services company.

"There are some issues" with the system in place to help Kentucky's foster children once they turn 18, said Harshaw. "But there are also some good programs. We have to help these kids use those programs to their benefit and society's benefit."

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, chairman of the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare, said he will hold a hearing this month on issues involving foster children who have turned 18.

Advocates said that the requirements set for young adults to stay in foster care can vary from social worker to social worker. In Perry County, Donna Epperson, treatment director at Buckhorn Children and Family Services, said she is working with a 19-year-old community college student who has extended her stay in foster care. Epperson said the young woman was told by state social workers she must get a job although she lives in a remote area and has no transportation.

"There's only four employers within walking distance. None of them are hiring," said David Graves, the CEO at Buckhorn.

Epperson said that some teens over 18 who have extended their commitment have not been allowed to have a car or driver's license. In other situations, advocates said, they have been allowed to drive.

Likewise, "workers in some parts of the state didn't think going to cosmetology school was enough ... while workers in another part of the state thought that was fine," Cantrell said.

Midkiff said a young adult's specific case plan may be terminated if he or she is non-compliant with the terms. For example, an extended commitment can be terminated if the person drops out of an education or training program and does not enroll in another. But Midkiff said the number of young adults terminating their commitment is not tracked by the reason for that termination.

Poling, president and CEO of Brooklawn Child and Family Services in Louisville, said "it's a pass-fail mentality."

"If they make a mistake and go out and do something silly or stupid, the state just says, 'You make a mistake, you are done, your funding is now cut,'" she said.

Finding stability

Johnson was in foster care when she was 6 and again from the time she was 12 to 18, she said.

When she turned 18 in January 2010, under state law she had six months to decide whether she wanted to remain in the cabinet's custody to get help with food, lodging and living expenses. Johnson briefly recommitted to foster care. But she later thought she should try to make it on her own.

By May 2010, she was pregnant and homeless and wanted to re-enter state custody so she could take part in a state-funded independent living program, according to a cabinet hearing officer's report. However, a family court judge took a social worker's recommendation that Johnson should be released from the cabinet.

Washington helped Johnson appeal the cabinet's decision. In June, a hearing officer issued a preliminary cabinet ruling that said Johnson should be allowed to return to state custody while she pursued her education because she had made the request within the six-month period required by law. But a final decision rested with Patricia R. Wilson, commissioner of the cabinet's Department for Community Based Services.

Midkiff would not say what ruling Wilson had issued, citing confidentiality laws. But Johnson said social workers told her that she had not been accepted back into state care. She said social workers had viewed her as "non-compliant" when she was in foster care because she got pregnant.

Johnson is receiving some help: a state law requires that foster children receive free in-state tuition. But she thinks she will have more stability in her life if the cabinet would let her back into foster care.

"I was trying ... to better myself," Johnson said. "They've left me struggling."

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

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