By Betsy Krebs
“When I was in foster care, no one talked to me about my future.”
These words, typical of a former foster teen, resonate with just about anyone who has been in foster care – and point to a fundamental flaw in how we work with those youth.
Against all common sense, the foster care system for teens focuses on the past and present, not the future. Issues of temporary placement and behavior management take precedence over education. Little effort is put into connecting teens with family resources. Meaningful contact with adults and organizations (potential employers, internship opportunities, college prep courses) that could help teens in foster care is practically nonexistent.
As for the mandated “independent living” programs, they’re usually too small and weak to adequately prepare teens and counter the overall foster care environment that works against teens planning for the future.
And laws requiring foster care teens to be prepared for “independent living” have failed, with many of the 25,000 young people leaving foster care each year ending up jobless, homeless or in prison.
We need to establish a clearly articulated focus on the future for these teens. How? One exciting opportunity comes through the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (JCYOI), which started last fall and seeks to improve the lives of the 100,000 young people in the United States between the ages of 16 and 21 who are about to leave or have left foster care. With $18 million in funding over three years from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, the JCYOI can continue to tinker around with a system that doesn’t work for teens, or move in a bold new direction.
The initiative can take a creative and bold step toward developing pilot projects that dramatically refocus attention on the future, setting standards for policy and practice that would ensure that more teens succeed after foster care. For example:
• Every young person (16 through young adulthood) in foster care should leave with a concrete and realistic plan for reaching his or her education, career and personal goals. At the Youth Advocacy Center, for example, we help young people develop “Y25 Future Plans” based on the young person’s aspirations. The youth is the main author and must communicate with others about the plan in writing and orally.
• This plan must be fully developed before the young person is about to “age out” of foster care, and should look several years ahead. The plan must project realistic budgets with real income and expenses.
• To ensure that these plans are realistic and feasible, people outside the foster care system should be involved in helping the young person develop the plan. One way to build a network of supporters is to set up informational interviews for young people with experts in the fields in which the young people are interested. If a young woman thinks she wants to be a chef, she meets with a professional chef who can advise her on what kind of education or internships are necessary to reach her goals, and help make connections to facilitate them.
• All employees of the foster care system who come into contact with the teens should be familiar with their plans for the future. Lawyers and judges should push foster care agencies to help teens develop these plans. Social workers can reinforce the importance of future planning over immediate day-to-day problems. Every placement and behavior-management decision should be considered in light of how it affects the teen’s plan for the future.
• Family members whom the young person identifies as supportive should learn about the plan. Each young person should have at least one family member who is part of developing the plan.
• These plans would be a means to create accountability for agencies that have custody of teens. For example, judges and auditors could review individual plans at an agency. To help ensure that those plans are concrete and realistic, individuals from outside the system (a family member, an expert from the community, a mentor) should sign off on each plan.
These and other strategies require a fundamental shift in foster care. It’s compelling to focus full attention on trying to repair all the past traumas for these youths and cope with the crises of the day. But the teens are then left without plans or resources for the day they age out.
For teens in foster care, the JCYOI is a great opportunity to change the focus from their past to their futures.
Betsy Krebs is a director of the Youth Advocacy Center in New York City. firstname.lastname@example.org.