NEW YORK — MUCH of their lives consist of a disjointed journey from one temporary home to another, until they end up in homeless shelters. These are the teen-agers who spend years in the city's labyrinthine foster care system, only to find that when they turn 18 and are discharged, they often lack the education and job training necessary to support themselves.
Some leave the child welfare system only to become dependent on homeless shelters or the criminal-justice systems.
Kevin, 19, was an infant when his mother abandoned him after his father was imprisoned for robbery. His paternal grandmother took him into her South Bronx home, he recalls. But when he was 8 she had him placed in foster care because he grew increasingly difficult. Kevin (who asked that his surname be withheld) spent the next 11 years on the move, being shuffled in and out of eight foster homes and three group residences. When he ran away from his last foster home at 18, he said, he had a ninth-grade education and no job skills.
Penniless, he panhandled for meals and slept in Times Square movie theaters. He began smoking crack cocaine, he says, and sold himself for sex to support a growing habit. He ``bottomed out,'' when he stole 200 vials of crack from a drug dealer and went on a three-day binge. Fearful that the dealer would track him down, Kevin turned to Covenant House, a private social welfare agency in Manhattan for homeless youths.
``The foster houses got progressively worse, and I got worse, too,'' he says. ``That's why instead of me running away, they started kicking me out. And I can't survive on the street.''
Kevin is one of the teen-agers claimed by what the Child Welfare League of America calls a ``national crisis'' besetting an overburdened foster care system that leaves many 18-year-olds unprepared for life.
According to a 1986 study by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, of the 276,000 youngsters in the country's foster care system, approximately 18,000 are discharged annually to ``independent living'' - that is, without the support that a foster home often provides. Yet only 34 percent have completed high school.
In New York, a 1981 study by the city's Human Resources Administration reported that nearly a third of former foster care youths depend on public assistance. And in 1987, the Legal Action Center for the Homeless determined that half of the young adults who eat at the city's soup kitchens have spent part of their lives in foster homes.
The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the state must expand programs that prepare teen-agers in foster care to live independently. The decision resulted from a lawsuit filed on behalf of 10 young adults, who said they became homeless after being discharged from foster care.
In the wake of the ruling, New York established regulations to prepare foster care youths to function in society. The rules specify that these teen-agers be provided special tutoring, vocational training, classes in money management, and more.
ADVOCATES for the homes say that three years later, despite the state requirements, the city's Special Services for Children (SSC) has failed to provide a comprehensive independent living program.
``Abysmal,'' says Keith Summa of the Coalition for the Homeless, when asked to comment on the city's record for preparing older teen-agers for discharge from foster care. ``The state regulations, based on our information simply aren't being followed. We don't see any improvement.''
Linda Carlisle, assistant deputy commissioner for policy and planning, concedes that the SSC ``didn't do as good of a job as we should have.'' But she adds that many of the 67 voluntary child-care agencies with which the city contracts have begun their own programs for preparing teen-agers for independent living.
At the same time, she says, the SSC has been allocated $13 million in federal, state, and city funds to establish an elaborate independent-living program. It will provide that no youth can be discharged to independent living without adequate housing arrangements. And it will require that once discharged, a youngster will continue to receive support services for six months.
The foster care system is intended to rescue youngsters such as Kevin. Many children do find loving foster families and flourish in their new homes. For some, foster care is an alternative to parents who mistreat them. It offers others, through adoption, a second chance at a caring family.
The problems, according to child welfare experts, often begin before a child enters the system.
Children who have been neglected or abused are placed in foster care after having been removed from their parents under Family Court order. Many come from exceedingly poor families, often headed by a single woman who cannot cope with a troublesome child, according to a 1986 study by a statewide task force on foster care in New York.
Once in the city's foster care system, nearly 60 percent of the children are placed in more than one home, and about 28 percent experience three or more placements, the 1986 task force says. Struggling to survive in a system that offers little stability, some children slip behind in school and become even more troubled. Even those who achieve modest success after foster care may need help in living on their own.
STEPHANIE, who is 18, said she stayed only one month in her first foster home after she and her brother were removed from their mother's house in Harlem when she was 11. Stephanie says her mother was an alcoholic who could not care for them.
The two children spent the next seven years moving from one foster home to another, she says. Switching schools annually, never feeling as though she belonged with any foster family, Stephanie nevertheless managed to hold down part-time jobs and earn a high school diploma. Yet when she left foster care, Stephanie failed to make it, despite her job as an aerobics instructor (it did not pay enough to support her) and an aunt who offered to take her in. After spending a night in the subway, she turned to Covenant House.
Illiterate and unemployable, many foster care youths who end up on the street quickly fall into the cycle of drugs and prostitution. Laura Dodge, outreach team leader for Covenant House, says that teen-agers who are on the street for more than two months ``are lost, unless something really tragic happens that turns them around.''
Two Covenant House outreach vans cruise the city's streets every night looking for teen-agers, at least half of whom have spent time in foster care, according to Ms. Dodge. Volunteers hand out sandwiches and hot chocolate on corners where teen-agers gather to sell themselves or buy drugs. They listen, and if a youth lets them, they try to help.
``These kids can survive on the street, but they can't handle a job,'' said Dodge. ``They can't take any form of criticism. They can't accept the fact that they can't do something well. They're always embarrassed because they can't read or write.
``In many ways, we're starting over with them, and it's hard because you're working with an 18-year-old,'' she continued. ``It's not easy to go back and change 18 years of damage.''