The Unadoptables

What happens to tens of thousands of teens who 'age out' of foster care each year?

Leah McBride tried to make each school day last as long as she could. Books, spelling bees, and poetry are what she loved. "I didn't want to go home," she says now, remembering the nightmare of abuse waiting for her.

For a bright girl, betrayed by her troubled mother and father, school was an oasis from physical abuse. Then one day a teacher noticed dark bruises on Leah's body, and the lives of Leah and her three sisters changed overnight. They became wards of the state, placed in foster care. A brief return to their mother, with their father gone, ended with more abuse.

Despite the fact that 66 percent of all children who enter foster care in the United States are reunited with their birth parents within two years, Leah bounced from foster home to group home to psychiatric treatment center for the next 10 hard years.

Because her life lacked any sign of stability - often she ran away and had thoughts of suicide - she was seen by the system as "unadoptable." From her perspective, Leah never knew what was going to happen next. Instead of being in a problem, she grew to believe she was the problem.

Eventually, she "aged out" of foster care, becoming one of the 25,000 to 30,000 teens recently estimated by the Child Welfare League of America to reach age 18 without a job or life skills. Most are ineligible for more foster care, and have to live on their own. In some states, continued assistance is available if they are in school and older than 18.

But reliable numbers are hard to come by because research on teens aging out of foster care has been spotty. Sociologists and foster-care experts say the numbers are growing. Overall, the number of children in foster care in the US has doubled to 500,000 over the last decade.

Lighthouse Youth Services: a teen beacon

Most of all, as with many foster-care kids, what changed Leah's life was her resilience and a determination to succeed. She is now in her third year in college, has her own apartment, and does well socially and academically.

She attributes most of her successful aging-out experience to her time spent in the Lighthouse Youth Services, a nonprofit independent-living program in Cincinnati. She also has a close relationship with a loving foster mother.

"God gave me a second chance to prove you don't have to succumb to the environment you were raised in," she says. She often shares her hard-won convictions in talks with teens in the Lighthouse program.

But Leah's success is not typical, nor are the supportive services available to her in Cincinnati offered in most other states or cities for aging-out teens. The Child Welfare League of America says fewer than 25 percent of foster-care agencies provide teens with services to become independent.

Bob Stoval, who runs Tahoe Turning Point, a resident home for teens in Lake Tahoe, Calif., says, "In normal families, kids are often supported into their mid-20s. In many foster homes they are out at 18 and lack any preparation."

Recognizing aging-out as a growing problem, Congress enacted the Independent Living Program in 1992, and disburses $70 million each year for various programs among the 50 states. Experts say teens that leave foster care, or become homeless, or drift among relatives, have needs that outweigh current funding.

"When you consider the number of teens who are homeless or runaways on any given day," says Nancy Eschbach, program director for the National Runaway Switchboard in Chicago, "then $70 million is a drop in the bucket. Our estimate in Chicago is that 10,000 kids are on the streets on any given day."

"We have 88 counties in Ohio," says Mark Kroner, director of the Lighthouse Youth Services independent-living program, "and only 30 of them are trying to do anything about the problem. Only five have full-fledged programs with housing."

Responsibility rewarded with an apartment

Mr. Kroner and his staff currently monitor and train some 50 teens from ages 16 to 19 on a daily or weekly basis. Many older teens are doing well in modest apartments while finishing school or job training. "We cover their utility bills and show them the bills so they understand what they will face when we stop paying," he says.

Weekly allowance is $60, and $15 goes into savings. The rest covers food, transportation, etc. "We've learned that they have to mismanage money before they manage it," he says.

What separates the Lighthouse program from others is the reward at the end. "If a teen has done well throughout the program, and is fully responsible," says Kroner, "we turn the apartment lease over to them, let them keep the furniture and supplies. Not too many years ago, when kids left foster care at 18, it was, 'Where do you want us to leave your bags?' The reality is that many of these kids are not wanted."

Many teens tire of bouncing around foster homes, and want to be on their own. Alfred Perez, who spent 11 years in foster care and is now the outreach coordinator for California Youth Connection in San Francisco, says, "At first it was all baffling to me. The legal system takes you away, then social services take over. I felt like I was being punished because I was institutionalized."

In Boston, Anthony Barrows was unable to get along with his single mother and was placed in series of group shelters by the Department of Social Services (DSS), then into foster care "It was a good, family situation," he says, "and I had a really cool social worker."

While in a foster-care home, Anthony participated in an independent-training course called PAYA (Preparing Adolescents for Young Adulthood). After graduating from the Boston Latin School, he moved to an apartment, and continues to receive $514 a month from DSS.

He is now in his third year as a philosophy major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and has part-time jobs. "It's a state policy to continue to support kids until 22 if they are doing well in school or college," says Maureen Fallon, assistant director for Adolescent Services of DSS. "We are seeing more of this every year now because kids know education is the key to success."

Staying the course

Foster-care teens who are succeeding, like college student Andrea Morris in Boston, know how difficult it is to be removed from an abusive family.

"I'm not going to say it wasn't a traumatizing experience," she says, "but I was blessed with a great foster-care home." To other teens in foster care, she says, "You have to stay strong with positive things. Nothing is going to be given to you. Eventually it will get better."

A TASTE OF LIFE ON THEIR OWN

ndependence City exists for only a day in June at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif.

Some 35 local foster-care teens are given $800 of Independence City money as part of the federally funded Independent Living Program. They spend the day weaving their way through a series of stops on campus that duplicate life in the real world.

First, the teenagers visit the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for a driver's license, then go to the Social Security Office for a card and number. That is followed by trips to the bank, health center, supermarket, hardware store (for pots and pans), court and legal services, and the post office using the play money for payments along the way.

Say Karen Nutt, Foster Care Coordinator at Citrus, "One young lady said at the end of the day, 'I used to think $800 was a lot of money." And she said she realized she couldn't afford an apartment, a cell phone, and a pager all on $800."

At day's end, says Ms. Nutt, the kids are tired and wiser. "The intent is to show them that life isn't real convenient," she says, "Some offices are clear across town and others are close by, and offices are closed at different times."

After lunch they get a paycheck in differing amounts minus deductions and head for the bank to deposit it. With any money left over, they bid at an auction for gifts, like phone cards, donated from the community.

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