Aging Up: Successful Foster Youth Highlight Flaws in Nation's Care Systems
What saves these young people from homelessness?
WASHINGTON -- It’s hard for Sixto Cancel, a lifelong foster kid, to fight the feelings of guilt that will occasionally creep up when he thinks about his life journey.
Last week, the 20-year-old Afro-Hispanic college freshman traveled to the nation’s capital, by invitation of congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), to attend the presidential inauguration and talk foster care system reform with other lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Cancel, an outspoken national advocate for foster youth, is one of the 424,000 children and young adults currently in the nation’s foster care systems–or are soon to age out of care upon reaching their 18th birthday–where, after surviving the challenges of foster care, they come face-to-face with the challenges of young adulthood, often made worst by traumatic upbringings.
At the outset, many of these young people don't receive the services and care that would reduce the almost inevitable likelihood of free falling towards unemployment, homelessness and general aimlessness once they have aged out of the system. That's why national advocates and lawmakers are seeking reforms and just the right formula to duplicate Cancel's improbable success.
Connecticut's foster care system supports foster children until age 23. Cancel receives voluntary assistance of $22,000 per year to budget between school and living expenses. He now lives in Richmond, Va., where he attends Virginia Commonwealth University, and supplements his income by working for Rising Tides, a nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency for aged out foster youth. His 10 brothers and sisters, several of whom are still in Connecticut’s foster care system, are on his mind as he absorbs Washington, D.C. and all of its pre-inauguration pageantry.
During a lunch meeting with former foster care youth and Rep. Bass at a cozy Chinese restaurant, mere blocks away from where he would watch President Barack Obama's historic second inauguration the next morning, Cancel tugged his rimless glasses from his face, placed them on the table and wiped away tears from his eyes.
“I feel like sometimes there is a guilt, there’s a huge guilt, with seeing the work I do and seeing my brothers…” Cancel choked up; not quite finishing his thought.
“It’s survivor’s guilt,” chimed in one of his young colleagues.
Cancel, and fellow foster care survivors Daniesha Tobey-Richards and Elbert Belcher, say the most critical areas of need for foster youth–particularly those who are nearly out of care–are: permanency, normalcy and well-being.
They all relived their stories with Bass over an emotional lunch. At the end, they all agreed that it would take some time to craft legislative remedies to address those needs, and to duplicate the kinds of services that turned their unlikely circumstances into success stories.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 48 percent of foster youth lived in non-relative family homes in 2010. Another 26 percent lived with relatives. The remaining 26 percent ended up in varying arrangements that included group homes or supervised independent living.
Tobey-Richards, now a 19-year-old psychology major at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth–in and out the state’s foster care system until her early teens–explained the importance well-being for foster youth:
“The system thinks the child is mentally stable because they’ve got a home and they have friends around them. But there’s a tornado inside. [The child is] saying, ‘There’s no way I could be stable. I’ve been in so many foster homes.’ There is no connection between what the child is feeling and what the system says is healthy.”
It took some time for Tobey-Richards to adjust from saying goodbye to her birth family living in a bustling, metropolitan area of Massachusetts to being placed with a foster family in a sleepy farming community. She attributes her post aging out success to groups like FosterClub, a national peer-to-peer network of young people in foster care who engage and support each other through online forums. Tobey-Richards credits FosterClub for helping her find her voice.
The experience of being placed in new homes, or worst yet, bouncing around to different foster homes until aging out, with no outlet or supportive community to help youth cope with their trauma, causes many foster children to rebel, advocates say.
“Foster parents think that, because they take in kids, foster kids should be grateful,” said Jetaine Hart, a youth mentor for the Alameda County Office of Education in Oakland, Calif.
Knowing from whence she speaks, the one-time foster child has worked on Capitol Hill and met with Bass’s delegation of foster youth last week. “Foster parents have to understand that respect is earned and not just given because you took us in,” she added.
Adults who choose to open their doors to foster children often receive training and other supportive services. "But some don’t always apply what they’ve learned or they apply it too rigidly," said 21-year-old Belcher, who spent his entire life in Kentucky’s system.
“It can also be the reverse,” he acknowledged. Belcher, a Bluegrass Community and Technical College student and advocate with the Kentucky Foster Care Council, who at 19 entered an independent living program and received his G.E.D, recognizes that “Sometimes the teen doesn’t give [the foster parent] information on their situation or explain how to have a relationship, a real relationship, with the parent.”
That relationship, the foster youths tell Bass, has everything to do with the perception of permanency and normalcy during adolescence. It also has everything to do with why they became ambassadors for successful young adults out of care–or nearly there. Each of them credits state-funded and nonprofit organizations that provided them with enough services to prevent some of the worst outcomes for aged out foster youth: homelessness, incomplete education and substance abuse.
Bass is searching for policies that would minimize trauma for foster children much earlier and improve their chances of emerging from care prepared–mentally, emotionally and academically–to face adult life.
“In terms of the laws that need to be created, why are children moved so often?” Bass asked. “How do you take the profit motive out of foster care? How do you screen and make sure [parents] are in it for the right reasons?”
Bass is on a mission to address just those questions, but admits that the introduction of legislation is at least two years off considering the priorities of the new Congress. She co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth with three other House members, including former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, with whom she doesn't see eye-to-eye on other issues.
“If my goal is to transform the system, then I’m going to work with anybody that wants to do that with me,” Bass said. “We will determine what we work on this year.”
The week before Cancel, Tobey-Richards and Belcher visited Washington, President Obama signed into law the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which grants child welfare agencies access to the school records of foster youth within their care. Privacy laws previously made that a difficult task and, in some cases, resulted in delayed graduations for some. A small but significant step.
Cancel tells Loop 21 he loved everything about the inaugural ceremony. He says Obama’s speech assured him that he was “looking out for the most vulnerable populations.”
The delegation also got the rare opportunity of posing beneath the arch where the president, his cabinet and other government leaders walked through as they were introduced at the ceremony.
The following day, the delegation's meetings with other lawmakers went well.
“I’m blown away,” Cancel said. “There was a lot of questions and lots of ‘keep in touch.’ I was really glad to see the support.”