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How to keep foster youth from becoming homeless youth

'Seven,' being interviewed at YouthCare Credit: Judy Lightfoot

“Seven” grew up in a repressive authoritarian cult. She was so isolated from the world, she didn’t know what TV was until she was 12. After her father was kicked out of the cult, she attended public school for the first time. “I had to stay after school so they could teach me how to read a clock,” she says.

The 21st century overwhelmed Seven. She got good marks in seventh grade, but she couldn’t sit still. “I was a loose cannon,” she admits. “I was a watcher and absorbed things [until] it was just too much. Kids who weren't nice to me I kicked in the shins.” When puberty hit, with its hormones and identity crises, she broke down and was expelled for violent behavior.

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Seven ran away from home to live with an older sister who traveled a lot for her job in the adult entertainment industry. Unsupervised, Seven started using with street kids, and eventually went missing downtown. By age 14, she was bouncing from group foster homes to juvenile detention to hospital ERs and psych wards. Antipsychotic meds cooled her down enough for placement in a more normal foster home, but her foster mom was spiteful, repeatedly telling Seven: “When you turn 18, we’ll have a nice bonfire in the street for your stuff.”

Seven recalls being haunted by “the terror of turning 18. I couldn’t think straight to do school, didn’t have the skills to get a job. I felt insane, felt I was drowning.”

When she turned 17, Seven’s case manager got her into transitional housing at YouthCare's Pathways. She blew out of Pathways and other programs more than once, she says. “People were trying to work with me but I was really struggling.” Then when she hit 20, an 18-month voucher from Seattle Housing Authority helped her move into her own apartment. “It was my first experience of having my own place,” Seven says.

The foster care system is a major pathway to homelessness. A tiny fraction of America’s 18-24-year-olds are homeless or unstably housed in any given period, but the percentage of foster youth who become homeless is high. In Washington state, 35 percent of the 550 teenagers who age out of foster care each year wind up on the streets during their first year out. That’s according to a 2013 study by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

In addition, many foster kids run away to the streets, where they may spend days or even years. Between January 2010 and April 2012, 115 to 172 children ran away from their foster homes each month, according to DSHS.

As Seven’s history suggests, steering homeless foster kids or young people at risk of homelessness under a roof and keeping them there is no simple task. “It’s not like they get housed and quickly become successful people,” says Hedda McLendon, YouthCare’s director of programs. “Their progression is never linear.” In this respect, says McLendon, homeless foster kids are a lot like college kids who need to “take breaks and who get to go home, then go back [to school]. One thing we do with our programming is we try to allow for that coming and going.”

Patience is critical to any foster youth program, but so is discipline. YMCA’S Metrocenter Seattle offers an Independent Living program for foster teens on the cusp of independence, providing resources to help prepare them for the time when they’ll age out of care. Some enroll at age 15 or 16 then don’t show up again for a year or more, says Cacey Hanauer, YMCA director of Foster Care Transitions. “That’s how their brains work, and I get it.” But if they don't honor commitments, there are repercussions. “If they miss a housing appointment [they] don’t get the place,” says Hanauer. “If [they miss] a job interview [they] don’t get the job. Natural consequences aren’t punitive. It’s how the world works.” 

Why is it so much harder for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability? There are four main factors at work.

Psycho-physiological problems — from depression to panic disorders and addiction — contribute to instability. These issues often spring from the original shock of being taken from one’s parents. The separation is traumatic even if it rescues a child from abusive or neglectful caregivers. As discussed in earlier Crosscut stories, the separation can be as wounding as the parental behavior that triggered it.

Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents “don’t trust anyone agency-based,” says Hanauer. “Just walking in the door is hard for them.” Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.

Our “underfunded, broken” system of foster care is another obstacle to stability. The system inadvertently trains kids to be passive in ways that keep them from taking responsibility for themselves, says Hanauer. Youngsters learn that their needs won’t be met unless they’re in crisis. “They don’t get new shoes until they’re practically walking around barefoot,” she says. They learn to wait, rather than be proactive. When they’re older, Hanauer says, pushing them to “look ahead, get an apartment before you’re homeless, stock up on food before you get hungry, save money” is largely ineffective.

Finally, says Amy Crawford, manager of basic services at YouthCare’s Orion Center, many homeless foster youth, unlike their non-foster homeless peers, were moved from placement to placement so often that they lack the natural support networks — adult relatives, neighbors, etc. — that might help them stay on a healthy path.

Seven’s social ties were tenuous ones with service providers and street kids. When she got her own apartment at age 20, she’d been self-medicating with a fifth of whiskey a day. She knew she needed a better support system, so she set about building what she calls a “tripod.”

She picked an apartment near a martial arts dojo, whose community of healthy people was letting her train in exchange for work. One dojo friend was “pretty much my rock, my main person,” she says. Gritting her teeth, she enrolled in school. And, she says, “I got myself a really messed-up, sad, abused, severely neglected dog who was a lot like me.” The dog helped her stay housed, sober and on track because “I was never going to let a dog under my care be homeless.”

The good news is that there is more help on the way for Seven and others like her. Organizations in the region are building support systems for current and former foster youth that are aimed at keeping them off the streets.

United Way of King County is leading a statewide collaboration between DSHS, Partners for Our Children and other organizations dedicated to reducing homelessness among foster children age 14-17, those aging out of foster care at  age 18 and homeless foster alumni up to age 21. The planning stage of the collaboration is being funded by a two-year federal grant from Youth At Risk of Homelessness (YARH).

The first goal is to find effective ways to identify the foster youth who are most at risk of becoming homeless. The other is to develop system-wide strategies which meet the need for stable housing, education and employment, permanent connections with supportive adults and a sense of well-being. If successful, the project “will make a huge dent in the number [of foster kids] showing up in the homeless system,” says Courtney Noble, Impact Manager at United Way.

There are also projects in the region that offer housing designed specifically for young people transitioning from foster care to independence. A new project for young adults (18-24) navigating that transition is under construction in south Seattle as part of the Navos Behavioral Health Care Center. A residence, set to open in 2015, will offer 24 studio apartments, along with common areas, a resident manager and a consultation office where young tenants can meet with counselors and case managers.

The Burien residence, on Navos property graced by trees and a lake, feels like a college dorm, says Navos director of residential services Kate Naeseth. Tenants will contribute a percentage of their income toward rent, which will be partly subsidized by King County Housing Authority. Residents will have access to education, employment training and health care, and will be matched with peer mentors who understand the problems and can offer advice and solutions. For the mentors, “it’s part of their healing,” says Navos CEO David Johnson.


David Johnson and Kate Naeseth of Navos are training foster kids for life. Credit: Allyce Andrew

Navos residents are expected to develop skills for independent living, build natural support systems and graduate from the program in a couple of years, then go on to finish high school or college and find jobs. 

Enlightened approaches to runaways and potential runaways are also brewing. Childhood homelessness is dangerous, and studies show that early episodes lead to lasting homelessness later in life. Progress toward keeping foster kids from running has been slow but palpable.

The Children’s Administration (CA) recently formed a team of six "locators" whose job is to find runaways. The team, says Mary Van Cleve at Columbia Legal Services, has had some good results, but it needs expanding. With more than 100 children running every month, CA locators have to prioritize: They focus on the highest-risk kids, and postpone the other searches. But all runaways are at high risk, most especially of being dragged into the sex trade. “If it were one of our own children,” says Van Cleve (below), “we’d be out there looking for them immediately.”

Another positive step is appointing attorneys for runaway kids, which is “now departmental policy at DSHS,” according to Van Cleve. Lawyers can prevent foster children from running away by holding CA accountable for letting a child visit a sibling without having to take desperate measures. “There are services and rights, and rights to those services,” explains Van Cleve’s colleague at Columbia Legal, Casey Trupin, but often a kid needs a lawyer to make his or her case. Attorneys can also provide a stabilizing sense of empowerment for foster youth. “One feeling driving kids to run is ‘I have no voice, no control over my life,’” says Trupin. Finally, attorney-client confidentiality gives kids a safe way to talk about their desire to run and maybe even change their minds.

Unfortunately, not all courts comply with DSHS’s attorney-for-every-foster-kid policy. According to Van Cleve, some judges automatically “issue warrants for [runaway] kids and lock them up.” In fact, Washington is among the top three states for putting runaways in detention, says Trupin. Ironically, he adds, “if a kid is running to see mom or their sibling, throwing them into detention just makes the problem worse.”

One final step in the right direction is the series of Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws that have been crafted by the Washington legislature during the past eight years. EFC laws now make most foster youth aging out of care (at 18) eligible for state services, such as financial support, until they turn 21. This means that 18-year-old foster kids aren’t just “given a trash bag full of their belongings” and told “this isn't your home anymore,” says Van Cleve.

Some foster youth want to leave the system far behind once they turn 18. But with EFC laws, says Jim Theofelis, director of The Mockingbird Society, they have a choice. They can opt in for some help to “go to school or to work and start building a life separate from the system.” If they fail or become homeless, he continues, "it's not because we dumped them."

Providing the extra years of support also provides hope for younger foster children, who see so many foster alumni deteriorating on the streets and believe they'll be homeless drug addicts someday too. “We fail them by not showing them there’s a path out of where they are," Theofelis says.

Mykell Daniels chose the EFC program after she turned 18. She had been taken in by her grandmother at the age of 4 because her parents were addicted to drugs. At 14, her grandmother fell ill and Daniels was placed in foster care.

She graduated from high school at 18 and moved with her boyfriend to Pennsylvania, where he was attending college. Three months later she returned. “But my foster family wasn’t willing to take me back,” she says. “You turn 18 and the support stops, and life is coming at you and you’re still a baby” mentally and emotionally. With financial help provided by EFC, Daniels, now 19, shares an apartment with roommates and works as a network representative for The Mockingbird Society. She plans to enter a midwifery nurse training program in the fall.

About 360 young people are enrolled in Washington’s Extended Foster Care program, according to Jim Theofelis. One foster group that still needs EFC protection is disabled youth, a cohort that is currently not eligible for the program.

As for Seven, she recently applied to Seattle University’s Fostering Scholars program. At the interview, says Seven, “I was trying to hide all my tattoos and look inspiring in my glued-together shoes. The girl who went in before me was so cute-faced. I could hear her making them laugh. How could I do that?”

But she was accepted, and at age 25, she has just completed her junior year, on a full-ride scholarship. She has a part-time job as a security guard at a community college and is on track to earn her B.A. in criminal justice in a year or so.

To save a child like Seven takes a village of caring, committed and patient professionals; and kind people in hospitable places like Seven's martial arts studio; and sometimes pets. With that kind of support, a resilient soul can rebound from the trauma and build a good life.  

To read more of our Kids@Risk series, go here.

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