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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Families Help Former Foster Youths Adjust

Counseling: New program eases transition to adulthood by placing teens in households under a different set of rules.

November 24, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until this fall, foster children were often sent out on their own when they turned 18, with no money, no place to live and no emotional support.

Now, they have another option. A Ventura County nonprofit group is pairing former foster youths with local families, hoping to ease their transition into adulthood and keep them off the streets and out of jail.

The youths, ages 18 to 21, receive free or cheap room and board for up to one year. In exchange, they have to work and follow the family's rules. During their stay, nearly a third of the income the youths earn goes into a savings account, kept by a caseworker at Interface Children Family Services, the Camarillo-based group that runs the program.

"It's like baby steps toward their independence because they are still connected to a family," said Nicole Hassell, outreach case manager with Interface. "But yet they are on their own and having the responsibility for themselves that they may not have had in care."

Called Host Homes, the program is the agency's most recent effort to help emancipated foster youths, who "age out" of the system at 18 and often don't have anywhere to go. Interface also offers classes to teach them how to apply for jobs, manage bank accounts and use public transportation. Before they leave the system, the teens can live in supervised apartments in Thousand Oaks.

About 50 Ventura County teens leave the foster care system each year. Most leave when they are 18, but can stay in foster care until they turn 19 if they are still in school.

Case managers say matching the former foster youths with host families isn't easy. They try to give host parents a sense of what these teens have been through and warn them of potential problems.

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Some of the teens use drugs and may not be willing to change when they move into a home. Others are so eager to be on their own that they may not follow rules. And some are so emotionally detached they are not able to get close to anyone.

Samantha McBride, 20, is among the first emancipated foster youths in the program. She recently began living in Newbury Park with Sherri and Pino Sanchez, who are receiving a monthly stipend of $150 from Interface to help out with expenses.

When McBride was in foster care, she lived in 16 homes and ran away at least that many times, earning the nickname "Happy Feet." When she turned 18, she left her last group home.

She then had a baby, but continued running--sleeping on friends' couches, staying with her mom and even spending a night curled up in a tunnel at a park. She decided to give up Michaella to foster care when she realized the drugs and violence surrounding her were not healthy for the baby.

McBride sees her stay with the Sanchezes as a chance to get her life in order. A chance to get a stable job and hopefully get her 2-year-old daughter back. And a chance to save money so she can get her own place.

"Now I don't have to run anymore," she said. "I'm done with my exercise for a while."

McBride said her first family didn't work out because she didn't get along with the host mother and didn't spend as much time at the house as was expected. But McBride said she is thankful to have found the Sanchezes, and said she hasn't had any big disagreements with them. Wearing an oversized flannel shirt and chipped green nail polish, McBride smiled at Sherri Sanchez.

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"It feels good to be part of a family," she said. "I never had too much of a family in all my years."

Sherri Sanchez works at Interface and has two teenage daughters. She said she decided to open her home to McBride because her work helped her understand the obstacles these teens face.

Sanchez also took in McBride's 18-year-old sister, Jennifer, and her two children this month after they lost their apartment in a Thousand Oaks fire. Jennifer had also been in foster care but was doing well on her own until the fire, Sanchez said.

Besides asking Samantha to help out with the dishes, Sanchez has set few rules for her new house guest. "Samantha's 20, and she needs to make her own decisions about what to do," she said.

After seven years of living in foster and group homes, McBride said she is trying to learn how to be responsible and independent. She works as a clerk at two department stores and is studying to take a high school equivalency test.

She sees her daughter once a week and said she is doing everything she can to keep working toward her goals.

"I need to let go of the past and keep looking forward," she said. "I gotta think about my daughter."

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FYI

For more information about Host Homes, call 485-6114.

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