Playing Aging Out of Foster Care
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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We began our program this week with a story about faith-based social services. Here’s a great example: churches taking care of young people who need foster care but have become too old for foster homes. Foster parents can be wonderful or, in some cases, less so. But for all foster children there comes a time when they must leave, ready or not. In the language of social services, as Mary Alice Williams reports, they have “aged out.”
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: Times Square — crossroads of New York. Of all the homeless teens each year who step off the bus at a crossroads in their lives, the least prepared to survive and thrive have one thing in common: foster care.
JASMINE RIOS: I didn’t really think I would become homeless. I had no other place to go. I was scared. I was really scared.
WILLIAMS: Jasmine Rios had been in the foster care system since the age of three when she was taken from her alcoholic mother. Through the years she was bounced from home to home –five in all.
Ms. RIOS: I got beat up. So I tried to fight back, but I didn’t win. I just felt really bad about myself, and I felt like I was a loser.
WILLIAMS: Each year, some 20,000 foster kids in this country turn 18 and get turned out. The University of Chicago reports less than two-thirds of them complete high school. Many don’t have jobs, and their rates of arrest, health problems and welfare dependency are far higher than the population as a whole.
On her 18th birthday, Jasmine “aged out” of foster care with little but the shirt on her back. Jasmine found that when the government closes doors, providing little help as these kids age out, faith-based groups open theirs. A block from that bus terminal, she found Covenant House, a Catholic crisis center for runaway teens that provides food and a warm bed, no questions asked.
BRUCE HENRY (Executive Director, Covenant House, New York): Our experience is that when somebody ages out of foster care, they do not have the skills to live on their own. So within a fairly rapid period of time, they’re accessing the shelter system.
WILLIAMS: Bruce Henry is the executive director of Covenant House in New York. He says around 36 percent of the youths they see are foster kids.
Mr. HENRY: You see a system that, until you’re out, you’re treated as if you’re seven, and now suddenly you’re out and you’re ill-prepared to live in the world. The foster care kid is terribly, terribly dependent.
WILLIAMS: Covenant House provides a bridge to independence with job training classes like this one for future food handlers. Covenant House also provides job placement, health care and counseling. It’s part of the Rites of Passage program where 20-year-old Basim Miller has been for the last three months.
BASIM MILLER (Resident, Covenant House): Coming to the Covenant House was, you know, one of my last options.
WILLIAMS: When Basim was three his mother was murdered by his father. He was placed in, and kicked out of, four foster homes and spent a harsh winter homeless, squatting in an abandoned building.
Mr. MILLER: I would never know where I would get food. I would never know when a source of income would come in, and so trying to rely on yourself is really hard, and it just, it makes you want to cry just to know that there is really no help.
WILLIAMS: In Rites of Passage, Basim shares a room with three other young men. He’s got a job and is ready to start high school again.
Mr. MILLER: My case manager in Rites of Passage has basically set up a goal, like a short- term goal and a long-term goal, to help me out in the future.
WILLIAMS: In some states, kids like Basim can stay in the foster care system until they’re 21, while other states make them age out at 18, often with no stable housing, health care, or job possibilities. And even those states that permit kids to stay longer, Bruce Henry believes, exert pressure to make the kids move on.
Mr. HENRY: I think our feeling is that there are dozens of ways to tell the kids it’s time to move on. As kids get older in the system, there is no question that the message to them is, “maybe you’re ready to move out.”
WILLIAMS (to Mr. Henry): What happens to the kids who don’t get services?
Mr. HENRY: The number one place they access the government next is jail.
ALLISA BREEDEN: When I did sign myself out I was in a bad position that I guess as time went on I just kept trying to recover. You are forced to make transitions like way before your time. It’s mainly being an adult before you’re an adult.
WILLIAMS: Allisa Breeden was 15 and not getting along with her mother when she was sent into the foster care system living in four different homes, one three times.
(to Ms. Breeden): Did that make you angry?
Ms. BREEDEN: Yeah, it really did. Yeah, yeah, because I was living out of garbage bags. I can’t remember having like a room, my room, or something to always come home to.
WILLIAMS: Finally, Allisa has her own room. After aging out of the system at 18 she was lucky enough to end up here with five other foster girls at this brand new residence in the tiny borough of Highland Park, New Jersey.
“You are forced to make transitions way before your time.”
(to Ms. Wilson): This is pretty great.
SHABREE WILSON: I’ll show you a closet.
WILLIAMS: The girls all come out of foster care and pay 30 percent of what they earn to rent an apartment here with a bath, microwave and refrigerator, and they share a common living room, along with kitchen privileges. Although they’ve never met before they share the same history; a succession of foster homes, abuse, neglect, and now hope.
Ms. WILSON: They give us counselors, so it’s like somebody’s going to be walking me through it, or whatever. I’m not going to be just thrown out there and forced to learn it. In case I slip and fall I will have somebody there to help me up.
WILLIAMS: That was the hope of Reformed Church of Highland Park pastor Seth Kaper-Dale who built housing for them out of thin air.
Pastor SETH KAPER-DALE (Reformed Church of Highland Park, NJ): Irayna Court is the upper two-thirds of this building. Up until last August there was a flat roof right there.
WILLIAMS: Pastor Seth spotted that roof while sitting at his kitchen window in the parsonage. He was reading a newspaper article that said New Jersey had no housing for the 300 teens who age out of foster care each year, and that 60 percent of the state’s homeless population had been in foster care.
Pastor KAPER-DALE: It’s a staggering number.
WILLIAMS: It took partners to build these apartments. Pastor Seth got the state to help fund it, an interfaith social service agency to run it, and members of the congregation to donate skills.
Pastor KAPER-DALE: There are many places in Scripture that talk about the variety of spiritual gifts that are out there. Some are given the gifts of prophecy, and others, the gifts of tongues and the gifts of all sorts of things, and what we now know is that to some are given the gifts of understanding air rights law.
WILLIAMS: Like Rob Roesener, an attorney who structured a complex deal to subdivide the air space for housing.
ROB ROESENER (Attorney): I see Christianity as a service-oriented religion where you reach out to those in need — those who are less fortunate than you, and this was an opportunity for me to live out that faith. And so in that way I think my faith is stronger in that I see that when you do give and you help those less fortunate, you get back.
WILLIAMS (to Kaper-Dale): What does the church get from the girls?
Pastor KAPER-DALE: The church has grown in number. It’s also given people a way to really live out their faith.
WILLIAMS: Six apartments to serve 20,000 aging-out foster kids might seem a drop in the bucket. But to Pastor Seth, it’s just the start.
Pastor KAPER-DALE: I actually don’t think it’s a huge number. If every faith community were to build five or six apartments think of how quick you could make that number disappear.
WILLIAMS (to Ms. Breeden): So tell me about this place.
Ms. BREEDEN: This place is beautiful. Oh my God, you see the colors. You can walk through any part of this building and smile because it is so beautiful. I love it, I love it. We’ve got a coffee machine. How could you not love a place with a coffee machine?
WILLIAMS: A coffee machine seems a small blessing. But for the record number of teens aging out of the child welfare system, it’s a small symbol of what churches can accomplish.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY this is Mary Alice Williams in Highland Park, New Jersey.