With an easy laugh born of a growing self confidence, Tasha Fletcher represents the potential that's sparked when the high-tech world intersects with the cracks in the nation's foster-care system.
Two years ago, the 20-year-old from Brooklyn could have become another troubling statistic - a product of a national system that supports abused and neglected children in foster care only until they reach 18. Then, in most cases, it suddenly sets them loose to fend for themselves. About half drop out of school and end up unemployed, on welfare, or homeless.
But not Ms. Fletcher. She's finished two years of community college and is about to start a new job that pays more than $20,000 a year.
"Honestly, I'd be lost without the computer skills, stuck in a dead-end job, McDonald's or something," she says, adding, "But even McDonald's is computerized."
The success of young people like Fletcher is helping to fuel national and state efforts to plug the gaps left when teenagers hit 18 and "age out" out of foster care, and high-tech training is playing an increasing role.
In the past year, Congress has doubled from $70 million to $140 million the amount of money for Independent Living Programs (ILP) nationwide that focus on education and job training. Texas, Florida, and all the New England states except Vermont now offer tuition waivers or scholarships for former foster kids. The legislatures of California and Maryland are both considering approving similar waivers.
And an increasing number of social-service agencies, like Concord Family Services in Brooklyn where Fletcher received her computer training, have made integrating high-tech training into adolescents' lives as early as possible a top priority.
"We realized that for our kids to become job competitive and have better job options that they needed to learn technology and have basic computer skills," says Rhonald Underwood, coordinator of Concord Family Services Independent Living Program. "You can't even go to the library to take out a book unless you have basic computer skills."
And gaining such skills can be crucial to a youth's ability to succeed.
There are more than 545,000 children in foster care nationwide. More than 30 percent, or an estimated 180,000, are teenagers. Their chances of finding a permanent family are slim. Only 2 to 3 percent of teens in foster care are ever adopted. Most will turn 18 and suddenly find themselves without a home or medical insurance, struggling to stay in school while they work to support themselves and pay their own rent.
Studies have found that more than half drop out of school and are unemployed, about 40 percent parent a child or end up on welfare, and anywhere between 25 and 45 percent become homeless within a year of being "emancipated" from foster care.
Experts in the field say those are not surprising outcomes, considering most foster kids' lives.
"If you were drained emotionally, battered, afraid, rejected, bounced from foster home to foster home, and dysfunction is all you've known, of course, you're going to need extra help when you turn 18. You shouldn't be turned loose on your own," says Keith Turnage, president and CEO of Adopt A Special Child, a placement and advocacy agency for older foster children in Oakland, Calif.
In 1993, Congress first recognized the seriousness of the problem and allocated $70 million a year for states to establish ILPs to help youths aged 16 and over make the transition from foster care. A patchwork of programs developed nationwide.
More than 30 states now offer some type of independent-living skills training to some 75,000 youths, according the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), the oldest independent child-advocacy group in the US.
That's less than half the teens that need the services, and the quality and the extent of the program offered vary dramatically.
"A lot of states count that if a young person gets an assessment of their level of independent-living skills and a plan for acquiring some of those skills, that's served," says Robin Nixon, CWLA's director of youth services. "There's no consistency in looking at the level or quality of services offered."
Mr. Turnage also believes the focus on independent-living skills as the solution for older foster kids is misguided. He'd like to see the country put as much money and energy into helping these older foster children find full-time mentors, if not adoptive parents.
"What the system fails to recognize is that these kids need an adult in their lives, they need a guide," he says. "They're not going to have any success in helping these kids understand the Internet or computers until they deal with the fact that what ails these kids is a lack of a support system that all of us call a family."
Tasha Fletcher has first-hand experience with an agency that clearly didn't understand that. She says she was made to feel "like just another number." It was one of the agencies she dealt with during the four years she was in three different foster homes. She doesn't even remember its name.
But she was so bitter when she first got to Concord, she didn't expect much more. "I kept the smile on like nothing was going on, but inside I was about to crack - and there's only so long you can keep that up," she says.
After a few months at Concord, she realized she could "get out my steam" in part because she felt safe.
Concord is specifically designed not only to train kids in basic life skills - such things as making a budget, cleaning a house, saving for vacations and organizing free time - but also to give the clients a sense of family. Each youth is given a mentor and a set of expectations to meet.
"The staff really has a meaningful relationship with these young people, we're constantly building their self-esteem, providing the discipline and structure they need," says Lelar Floyd, Concord's executive director. "They know that we're really committed to them."
Tasha lived for a while in one of the agency's transitional apartments with other teens. She spent the summer at Concord's Youth Leadership Academy, which combines intensive computer training with other basic coping skills.
Slowly, she began to get a hold of her life. She eventually started working a full-time job at Concord's medical department.
The computer training and job skills she developed there helped Fletcher land a new job as a computer specialist in a medical services company. She knows she's lucky to have found Concord.
But experts say other good programs do exist. "We're in a time where there are a lot of renewed and creative efforts around the country to meet the needs of the kids in the foster care system, but there are still great challenges," says Peter Gibbs, director of the Center for Adoption Research and Policy at University of Massachusetts in Worcester.
Fletcher believes the computer training was only one component that helped her on the road to independence.
The other, and for her the most important factor, was the relationship she developed with the Concord staff, whom she calls her "family."
A report by the General Accounting Office has found that youth who are part of an independent living program are more likely to finish high school and stay employed. However, it found that such programs did not significantly reduce early parenthood.
Fletcher's not thinking of having a family any time soon. She's just enjoying her newfound independence.
"Like everything, I had my ups and downs with Concord, but I'm glad I came," she says, smiling up at Mr. Underwood. "Although I'm independent and on my own now, I don't think I'd reach this far without them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society