Independent Living Unit

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Allegheny County Department of Human Services
Pittsburgh, Pa.
(412) 350-5701

Objective: To provide assistance to youth aging out of the child welfare system who lack an adoptive parent or legal custodian.

Kids get to be kids at the Independent Living Unit, but they also learn to handle the adult life that lies ahead.

Photo: Dept. of Human Services

In a Nutshell: The Independent Living Unit is actually divided into two separate units – Independent Living Programs and the Independent Living Initiative – that work in different ways to carry out the entire unit’s mission. The Independent Living Programs offer a diverse system of supports to meet the needs of each youth, including life skills assessments, individualized goal plans, job and career development and personal safety and health issues. The Independent Living Initiative helps youth who are interested in post-secondary education by aiding in the college application process, providing information about financial aid and scholarships and offering other services. Staff members in both units are available to work one on one with those youth in need of more personalized, intense attention.

When It Began: The Allegheny County Department of Human Services serves youth by adding new programs as needs are identified. The Independent Living Initiative began in 2006. Independent Living Programs began about 15 years ago and operated independently before being gathered under the umbrella of the Independent Living Unit.

Youth Served: There are 1,087 men and women between the ages of 14 and 24 on the rosters of the two units, but not all youth receive services every day.

Where It Happens: Many different locations – at foster homes, group homes, residential facilities where the youth are placed, schools and group meetings in communities.

Who Started It and Who Runs It: DHS, under director Marc Cherna, started the program as a result of research showing foster care children are more likely than others to confront barriers to success later in life. Cherna named JoAnn Heffron-Hannah as the director of the Independent Living Unit within the Department of Human Services’ executive office in 2005. Independent Living Programs is run by five contracted neighborhood agencies, with around 30 paid employees. The Independent Living Initiative’s staff is composed of four caseworkers, four educational liaisons, one youth advocate and 17 mentors.

Overcoming Obstacles: Heffron-Hannah described youth workforce readiness as an early obstacle and has focused her efforts on incorporating workforce programming into traditional programming. After identifying this need, the Independent Living Unit partnered with Casey Family Programs in order to receive technical assistance. Heffron-Hannah said the unit attempts to join forces with other outside agencies and individuals who can provide unique programs.

Cost: The yearly operating budget is $1.5 million.

Who Pays: A combination of federal Chaffee money and traditional state child welfare funding, according to Heffron-Hannah.

Youth Turn-On: The participating youth enjoyed attending the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., last January, Heffron-Hannah said.

Youth Turn-Off: Attending mandatory meetings.

Research Shows: The Independent Living Unit is undertaking a small-scale evaluation; results are pending, Heffron-Hannah said.

What Still Gets in the Way: “Trying to convince people to do the good thing when they are maybe a little bit system-weary and trying to convince them that these are things that will benefit them is always difficult,” Heffron-Hannah said. “I would like 100 percent turnout. I try to set the standards very high. But it’s really, really difficult. These are transition-age kids. It’s really hard to convince them that going to a group meeting will be a real fun time.”