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After foster care, where can they turn?

Child-welfare workers and state and local initiatives are trying to help young people who `age out' of the system.

February 04, 2007|David Crary | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Articulate and engaging, 20-year-old Shakhina Bellamy appears -- at first meeting -- an unlikely fit in the ranks of New York City's homeless.

But after hearing her story, told through tears and flashes of anger, her state of limbo seems an almost inevitable result of an adolescence spent bouncing through a dozen group homes and foster families as a ward of New York's child-welfare agency.

She entered the system at 9 and walked away from it at 17.

"I didn't leave because I thought I was grown up; I left because no one was helping me," she said.

Child-welfare advocates nationwide are increasingly aware of the problems faced by young people like Bellamy -- 20,000 or so each year who "age out" of the foster care system with neither an adoptive nor blood-relation family to support them. Scores of state and local initiatives are being launched to assist them; their plight may be addressed by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

But front-line child-welfare workers say even the best new programs won't suffice without the hard work of engaging foster children one-on-one as they enter adolescence, soliciting their input and mentoring them in ways that replicate the best of a parent-child relationship. Bellamy agrees.

"You have to really talk to the kids, understand what they're going through and listen when they complain," she said. "If you don't, there are always going to be problems."

Youths are eligible to leave the foster care system at 18. They often have the option of remaining in it voluntarily, but advocacy groups say many are pressured to move on or -- if they make their own decision to leave -- are not provided with good advice about how to adjust.

"As a society, we have failed young people aging out of foster care," said Lynne Echenberg of the Children's Aid Society, a private New York agency. "Despite conclusive research showing how vulnerable they are upon discharge from care, these young adults continue to exit the child-welfare system to lives of uncertainty, pain, destitution and marginalization."

Studies by experts nationwide show dismaying statistics for those who age out of foster care. Fewer than half complete high school; many have no jobs and no home except for a friend's couch to crash on. Their rates of arrests, health problems and welfare dependency are far higher than for contemporaries with families of their own.

One potentially helpful step would be to extend more protections from ages 18 to 21, as Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) has proposed. Many experts are pushing for changes much earlier in the process, contending that foster children as young as 12 or 13 need extra help in preparing for the transition to adulthood.

"Foster care is a hyper-vigilant system -- focusing on safety and protection," said Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition. "These young people, as they move into later adolescence, don't get to do the normal rite-of-passage activities that actually prepare kids for adulthood -- getting a driver's license, working. They're kept psychologically dependent on other people making decisions."

Then, after an often disjointed adolescence, many leave the system at 18 unready for independence, Nixon said.

"For every other kid, the time they're allowed to be dependent on their family has continually extended, but for what I think are financial reasons we've not allowed that extension with foster kids," she said.

Much of the innovative work with older foster children is being done by private nonprofits such as the Children's Aid Society. It recently opened a one-stop resource center in the Bronx, offering guidance on jobs, housing, healthcare, education and legal problems.

"When it works, the magic is not that it's all at one location," said the society's chief executive, C. Warren Moses. "It works because the kids helped design it, plan it.... We respect what they're thinking about."

Among the center's clients is Bellamy. One of her latest projects there was to compile a resume for use in her job hunt.

Her odyssey through the foster care system came about because of her mother's on-again, off-again drug abuse. At one point eight years ago they were reunited, but ended up in a homeless shelter. Bellamy was forced back into the system at 14 when her mother relapsed.

Bellamy spent the next three years moving among different group homes and foster homes, sometimes with Latino foster parents who spoke virtually no English. In one home, she said, she was locked in an attic at night by the foster mother. Few of the adults overseeing her seemed to care about her future.

Bellamy pleaded with caseworkers for better living arrangements, but they said options were limited for a foster child her age. So at 17, she dropped out of the system -- going AWOL, as it is known among child-welfare agencies.

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