Tennessee foster kids face new hurdles at 18

5:56 AM, Nov 4, 2012   |    comments
Jennifer Rhodes gets ready to take a test at MTSU. A foster child since age 3, Rhodes is now 19 and taking advantage of a transitional living program. / John Partipilo / The Tennessean
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By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

As a child who grew up in state foster care, Jennifer Rhodes knew that turning 18 and finally gaining her independence could also put her on a lonely, difficult path.

She had two options. Go it alone or accept more help.

The help came with strings attached - more rules and regimens in a program that would help her transition into adulthood. Still, she took it, and a year later she realized her decision was the right one.

She was a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University and her roommate invited a young homeless man to spend the night. The next morning, Rhodes learned the man also had been in foster care.

But when he turned 18, he did not sign up for any additional assistance.

By the time foster children reach 18, many have tired of caseworkers and counseling, of making plans and following government rules. Rhodes remembers facing that fork in the road.

"It was kind of scary," Rhodes, 19, said of her decision. "You're about to turn 18; you're like, 'OK, I'm not going to be in foster care anymore, this is awesome.' But at the same time: What all am I going to do? Where am I going to go? How am I going to get a car? How am I going to pay for all of this?' "

Tennessee, like most states, has long struggled to help the teens who age out of foster care. Since 2002, the Department of Children's Services has been under a court order to improve the lives of children in state custody and of those who age out.

To that end, the state applied to join a federal program that helps pay for services for foster kids until age 21. DCS also launched internal reforms, including more training for caseworkers who help teens plan their futures. And, the state continues to partner with the Memphis-based nonprofit Youth Villages, which has won national accolades for its work with foster youths.

If Tennessee stays the course, it could become a national example in transitioning foster youths to adulthood, experts say.

States changed course

Already, Tennessee has dedicated more money to former foster youths than most other states, which only in the past decade have changed their thinking about post-foster care, said Mark Courtney, a University of Chicago social service professor.

"Most states just discharged young people at age 18 and expected them to live on their own," he said.

But that hasn't paid off, for the young people or the states, Courtney said.

His unprecedented research into foster youths - he followed a group for nine years - highlights the struggles they face.

As more than 25,000 foster youths age out of custody each year nationwide, 45 percent drop out of high school, half don't find jobs, 25 percent end up homeless and even more than that end up jailed, the study found.

Courtney found that providing services until age 21 could double employment rates and reduce unwanted pregnancies, homelessness and incarceration.

That research propelled a federal effort to provide more money for services for foster youths until age 21. This year, Tennessee became one of the first 18 states to qualify for those funds, which could go a long way in helping the 1,000 teens who age out of care here each year. About 800 qualify for extended care.

"Knowing what we know about brain development and adolescence and what's happening in every home across the country with young people in this age range, most folks aren't magically stepping out at age 18 ready to conquer the world," said Kim Mallory, director of the Office of Independent Living for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

Turning 18

When she turned 18, Rhodes, a lucky one, knew she'd be welcome to stay with her foster parents in Bristol, Tenn., but she wanted to make room for others who might benefit from the great care the family provided her.

Other foster children are not as fortunate as Rhodes. For them, becoming an adult means going out the door.

Either way, every teenager in foster care is supposed to have written life plans and goals in hand before they turn 18. They start working on those plans - for transitional living and independent living - years in advance. DCS caseworkers and a team of supportive adults are supposed to help the teens figure out what they're good at, what hurdles they'll face and how they can find help in their communities.

But DCS has a history of producing bad plans; many teens' plans read more like an afterthought.

In 2009, the department probed a sample of case files and found just 21 percent "clearly" met DCS expectations. The rest did not.

In response, DCS performed "back to basics" training across the state and changed policies.

For example, caseworkers now must meet older teens face to face every month. Previously, the check-ins were twice quarterly and sometimes handled by phone, Mallory said.

Many of the reforms overseen by Mallory were praised this year by the court-appointed child welfare experts who make up the Technical Advisory Committee, which watches over DCS.

In the department's most recent count, 85 percent of the youths who aged out (and who did their exit surveys) met at least one court-ordered goal, close to the court-ordered goal of success for 90 percent.

But one of the ways a foster child can meet a goal is simply by enrolling in high school, college or a GED program - regardless of whether the youth graduates.

DCS officials have not historically kept track of whether former foster youths who received scholarships successfully completed their schooling.

This year, DCS has kept track.

So far, of 62 youths who opted for assistance, 49 were either terminated, lost eligibility or could not be located.

A DCS spokesman said the outcomes are "very important" and will now be tracked.

As of July 1, Tennessee began to receive funding through the new federal program Fostering Connections, which helps the state care for adults until they reach 21- as long as they are in school, training for a vocation or disabled.

Previously, the state could provide a few hundred scholarships each year. But rules restricted how the money could be used, Mallory said.

For example, the money now can be used to continue paying a foster family if a teen wants to stay after turning 18.

The flexibility in housing assistance makes some work-study and community college options more realistic for foster youths.

The child advocacy experts monitoring DCS applauded the department for making the changes to receive the federal money but cautioned that dollars alone won't make the difference.

Caseworkers with "excellent" engagement skills will be needed, experts said.

A national model

While DCS has had to increase training of its transitional living caseworkers, Rhodes and other former foster youths have made strong connections with the specialists who work for Youth Villages. The nonprofit has served 4,590 former foster youths since 1999, investing $22.4 million and receiving an additional $9 million in state funds over that time.

Before Rhodes aged out, her DCS caseworker encouraged her to sign up.

What she found were dedicated transitional living specialists, available at any time of day by phone, text message or email. "They really will be there," Rhodes said. "I've called (her) freaking out over a test."

She said her counselor acted like a sister.

"They made sure I knew how to budget my money, have a job, maintain a job, be able to manage my time and school and work, and still be able to hang out with my friends," Rhodes said.

Courtney, the University of Chicago professor, will soon study Youth Villages and its partnership with Tennessee, which he already considers innovative.

"If we find the Youth Villages program to be effective, that's important to communicate well beyond the boundaries of Tennessee," he said.

Rhodes is a believer. She encouraged the homeless youth she met to accept their help.

And he did. The man now has a job, his own car and an apartment, she said.

"I don't want children that are aging out of custody to not know where to turn to," Rhodes said. "I know what that felt like. I know what could have happened to me."

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