Cheyenne, Wyo.—Gina Scott was sent to her first foster home when she was 9. Like many others in the foster care system, she bounced in and out of foster homes for years – and ultimately landed in the Wyoming Girls’ School, a secure, state-run center for juvenile offenders.
She was released shortly after turning 18 and pointedly reminded that she would be treated as an adult the next time she had contact with the police. Scott went out into the world covered by state health insurance, but with no high school diploma and no social worker, probation officer or any other responsible adult in her life.
Like many teens who age out of public care, she was on her own.
She didn’t realize that her life was about to change for the better, thanks to a law passed in Washington months before her release.
Wyoming was starting to implement the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, which was signed into law in December 1999. The act – named for the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.),who sponsored it – allows states to continue financially supporting youth who are still in foster care when they turn 18, which is usually when they age out of the system and lose its benefits. The goal is to help young people make the transition from foster care to independent living.
Nearly four years after its passage, the Chafee Act is being implemented unevenly across the country. But many states have made significant improvements in their foster care systems – changes that are improving the lives of thousands of current and former foster youth. That becomes clear here in Cheyenne.
Within a year of leaving the girls’ school, Scott was battling a drug problem. Some local youth told her about the Link, a youth services center which opened in 2000 to focus on providing services to older and former foster youth with Chafee Act funds.
Scott joined a support group there, but it wasn’t until she got pregnant last fall that the program really saved her. She enrolled in a GED program through the Link, which covered the rent for an apartment of her own.
She’s gotten so much other help there that without it, the 21-year-old says, “I can’t even imagine what my life would be like right now.”
Changing the System
Before Chafee, Wyoming didn’t provide comprehensive independent living programs for foster youth. But now some 375 foster youth (ages 16 though 18) qualify for such programs through Chafee, as do the approximately 80 youth who’ve aged out so far this year.
As for the condition of Wyoming’s youth in general, the state is firmly in the middle: The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2003 Kids Count Data Book, which ranks states for child well-being according to various indicators, lists Wyoming as 24th.
It is the least populated state in the nation, with 498,700 people spread over 97,000 square miles.
Wyoming now gets $500,000 in Chafee funds each year (out of $140 million nationally), distributing them through its Department of Family Services (DFS) to nine districts, two Indian tribes and the state-run boys’ and girls’ schools. District managers decide how the money is spent. While some use state employees to run programs, others contract with nonprofit and for-profit agencies.
The Link is one of those contractors, as are several crisis centers and group homes.
Scott found more than food and rental assistance at the Link. She earned her GED and took life-skills and job-preparation classes. She works part-time there as an administrative assistant.
Other independent living programs teach things such as nutrition, sex education, and responsible shopping, budgeting and banking. Some provide food, laundry, rental vouchers and group home arrangements.
Many such services were available to some aging-out foster kids before Chafee, but to a lesser degree. Unlike now, states did not have the option of extending Medicaid coverage to youth who turned 18 while in foster care. Nor were states required to have a formal plan for providing services to youth during the transition to independent living.
Perhaps most important for youth like Scott, states were not allowed to use federal independent living funds to provide room and board for foster youth once they turned 18. Now each state can use up to 30 percent of its Chafee allocation for housing.
While youth are referred to the Link by the local DFS district, Link Executive Director Lorye McLeod says, “Our main source of referral is the kids. The success [of other youth] makes them want to come.”
Pushing Kids To Push
Another big change prompted by Chafee involves the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, which used to provide direct services for Wyoming’s foster children. Now Casey helps the state coordinate its independent living programs (a service for which the state does not pay).
Casey tries to ensure continuity of state services and helps youth become their own advocates, says Casey transition specialist Cindy Hamilton. She helps track youth who are eligible for independent living assistance, makes sure they know what services are available, and pushes them to make sure they get what they need.
“It’s easier for us to empower kids than it is to change the system,” Hamilton says.
For example, although youth who turn 18 in the foster care system qualify for Medicaid, enrollment is not automatic in Wyoming, says Nichole Anderson, a social services consultant in the DFS Division of Juvenile Services. Youths have to initiate the process.
Speaking of empowerment, while at the Link, Scott helped to develop a transitional living program manual for statewide use, to be released next month.
Scott is a graduate of the Link’s Project Paycheck, a 14-week course that helps aging-out foster children learn about the working world and earn GEDs. Participants are paid $10 for each day they attend. They can also earn $100 for overall satisfactory attendance and for GED completion.
“If we can get them here for no other motivation, we can get them here for money, because everybody needs money,” says Project Paycheck coordinator Rachel Ming. The program is open to area youth regardless of their status as foster children. It is funded through Chafee (for the foster youth) and the federal Workforce Investment Act.
Courtney Mumme, 18, completed Project Paycheck in March. Now armed with a GED, she wants to go to college and become a doctor.
She actually moved away for a while to live with relatives in Minnesota, but recently came back and reconnected with the Link, where she found that she’s still eligible for some services under the Chafee Act.
Without that act, she says, “there wouldn’t be much support” for former foster kids like herself.
The Big Picture: Hazy
There is no single tool to evaluate how states are implementing their programs under the Chafee Act. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has pushed back the release of its outcome measurement database, called Youth in Transition, several times. The General Accounting Office – the investigative arm of Congress – is reviewing several state programs.
Nationally, there are signs of progress.
“There is anecdotal information – we hear of successes around the country,” says Peter Correia, director of the National Resource Center for Youth Development, based at the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa. “It’s more fair to say they [states] are doing something different.”
Chafee was designed to be flexible: It gives the states options for spending the federal funds and wide discretion in developing programs and determining which youth qualify.
The law defines eligible children as those “who are likely to remain in foster care until age 18” and those who age out, up to age 21. Each state determines who is likely to remain in foster care through age 18. A youth who may qualify for services in one state may not in another.
And while states may extend Medicaid to youth who age out, they don’t have to. States determine eligibility and enrollment requirements. According to the National Foster Care Coalition, fewer than 10 states offer Medicaid to youth who age out of care.
While states also can use Chafee funds for room and board, they define room and board (as well as eligibility for it) at their discretion. They are required, however, to provide some form of services to youth 18 to 21 who leave foster care because they turn 18.
State flexibility, a strong point in selling the legislation to some conservative lawmakers, is both boon and bane, advocates say.
“We’re not seeing it implemented consistently,” says Shelly Davalos, executive director of the National Independent Living Association, based in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It’s almost created too much flexibility.”
But the Chafee options have led some states to use their federal funds creatively. California, for instance, offers independent living programs for youth as early as middle school – youth who are not likely to return home to their parents or find permanent placements, such as adoption.
California also has statewide standards for independent living programs and outreach programs for college-bound youth, and integrates federal worker training programs with independent living programs. And it automatically enrolls independent-living youth in Medicaid.
Some states have changed their age limits for foster care, keeping kids up to 21 or even older. Instead of moving them out of one system and into a program of services, older foster kids receive a continuum of care without interruption.
“The kids are almost guaranteed to [get] better services,” says Robin Nixon, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition.
Money will always be a concern. Chafee doubled the annual federal payment for independent living programs to $140 million from $70 million. States receive funds through a formula based on total population and number of foster children, with the program administered by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.
But while the federal government provides more money for independent living, Nixon points out that it expects more from states and has increased the number of children who are being served by raising age limits for services.
Adds Davalos: “We got all excited about the doubling of the funding and the extension of Medicaid. What we forgot was we were essentially doubling the cases.”
One of the immeasurable benefits of the drive to enact the Chafee Act (“Young Advocates Sway Washington,” February 2000), along with the flurry of activity to implement it, is that “attention to the issue [foster care] is fabulous,” Nixon says.
Davalos agrees. The public, she says, “is starting to see foster kids as victims of the system or poor parenting instead of just kids with these labels.”
“The Chafee law has done some great things,” Davalos says. “But it still has a long way to go to iron out its growing pains.”
Lorye McLeod, Executive Director
1816 Central Ave.
Cheyenne, WY 82001
Cindy Hamilton, Program Specialist
Casey Family Programs
130 Hobbs Ave.
Cheyenne, WY 82009
Peter R. Correia, Director
National Resource Center for Youth Development
4502 E. 41st St.
Building 4 West
Tulsa, OK 74135
Shelly Davalos, Executive Director
National Independent Living Association
4203 Southpoint Blvd.
Jacksonville, FL 32216
Robin Nixon, Director
National Foster Care Coalition
1625 K St. NW, 11th Fl.
Washington, DC 20006
Key provisions of the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act
• Doubles federal independent living program awards to states to $140 million a year.
• Allows states to use up to 30 percent of their funds for room and board for young people ages 18 to 21 who left foster care because they turned 18.
• Allows states to extend Medicaid coverage to young people ages 18 to 21 who were in foster care on their 18th birthday.
• Requires states to have youth participate in designing program activities and to accept personal responsibility for achieving independence.
• Requires states to use a portion of their independent living funds for assistance and service to youth up to age 21 who left foster care because they turned 18.
• Clarifies that independent living activities are not alternatives to permanent placement and can be provided concurrently with adoption and other placement plans.
• Allows states to apply for funds once every five years, with a five-year plan for implementation.
More Foster Kids Adopted
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $14.9 million in bonuses last month to 25 states and Puerto Rico for increasing the number of children adopted from state-supervised foster care in fiscal 2002. In those states, 3,703 more children were adopted that year than in 2001.
Bonuses were awarded to the following states:
• Alabama – $96,000
• Colorado – $496,000
• Connecticut – $547,000
• Delaware – $64,000
• Florida – $3.5 million
• Georgia – $374,000
• Hawaii – $208,000
• Iowa – $524,000
• Kentucky – $204,000
• Maryland – $712,000
• Minnesota – $82,000
• Missouri – $366,000
• Nebraska – $20,000
• Nevada – $28,000
• New Hampshire – $158,000
• New Jersey – $1.9 million
• North Carolina – $320,000
• Ohio – $1.1 million
• Oregon – $224,000
• Pennsylvania – $1.2 million
• South Dakota – $322,000
• Tennessee – $1.1 million
• Texas – $68,000
• West Virginia – $18,000
• Wisconsin – $1.2 million
• Puerto Rico – $66,000