cen­ter helps build bridge to adult­hood for older fos­ter kids

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO&STATE - By lind­sey Bomnin

Un­der state law, when fos­ter chil­dren turn 18, they have to strike out on their own — hope­fully to find jobs or en­roll in col­lege or job-train­ing pro­grams. But the re­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, is that up to 50 per­cent of youths who “age out” of fos­ter care be­come home­less within 18 months of leav­ing the sys­tem.

A new tran­si­tional liv­ing cen­ter that opened last month at the Austin Chil­dren’s Shel­ter is in­tended to com­bat that statis­tic. The Ther­a­peu­tic Liv­ing Cen­ter for Boys will serve 16-to 21-year-olds, who tend to strug­gle the most when leav­ing fos­ter care, state of­fi­cials said. Ar­min Steege, vice pres­i­dent of res­i­den­tial pro­grams at the Austin Chil­dren’s Shel­ter, says the shel­ter’s new tran­si­tional liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties will help teens who ‘age out’ of fos­ter care.

The cen­ter is de­signed to house up to 14 fos­ter chil­dren and will teach them life skills such as ap­ply­ing for jobs, open­ing a bank ac­count, pay­ing bills and find­ing an apart­ment.

“It’s not right for us to get them to a cer­tain age and say, ‘OK, now you’re ma­ture enough to be on your own,’ ” said Ar­min Steege, the shel­ter’s vice pres­i­dent of res­i­den­tial pro­grams. “This is the op­por­tu­nity to give them the ex­tra boost.”

The shel­ter tra­di­tion­ally has pro­vided short-term care for chil­dren for an av­er­age of 100 days. It has 78 beds in five cot­tages, which in­clude emer­gency care res­i­dences for girls and for boys and a shel­ter for teen moth­ers. In Au­gust, the shel­ter will open a long-term, tran­si­tional liv­ing cot­tage for 14 young women ages 16 to 21, Steege said.

The shel­ter’s ad­min­is­tra­tors work with state case work­ers to de­ter­mine which fos­ter chil­dren would be a good fit for tran­si­tional liv­ing. The three young men now liv­ing in the new cen­ter — and oth­ers who fol­low — will at­tend classes and pro­grams of­fered by LifeWorks, Austin’s other long-term tran­si­tional ser­vice provider. The non­profit of­fers ser­vices de­signed to help move youths and fam­i­lies from cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, such as abuse and home­less­ness, to a safe en­vi­ron­ment where they can grow and suc­ceed.

The cot­tages are de­signed to pro­vide al­most ev­ery­thing they need in one lo­ca­tion. There are eight sin­gle rooms and six dou­ble or triple rooms. A cen­tral liv­ing area has a cou­ple of din­ing ta­bles, a few couches, a flat-screen TV, a bookshelf and a foos­ball ta­ble. They do their own laun­dry in the laun­dry room. Meals are pre­pared in an­other build­ing and brought to them.

“We want these young men to take own­er­ship of the cot­tage,” said Jef­frey Ne­cas, team man­ager for the cot­tage.

Ne­cas said he plans to add a gen­eral equiv­a­lency diploma pro­gram and com­puter sta­tions for job hunt­ing.

He’s also work­ing to get 1gal­lon fish bowls be­cause own­ing a fish “can be ther­a­peu­tic,” he said.

Be­cause they are bunked sep­a­rately from the younger res­i­dents, men in the tran­si­tional cen­ter are given more flex­i­ble rules and cur­few. No one will tell them when to go to bed — or when to wake up.

“We get them alarm clocks, but they’re re­spon­si­ble for wak­ing up,” Steege said. “We do a lot less hand-hold­ing.”

In their cot­tages, the res­i­dents can play board games, watch TV, prac­tice their mu­si­cal skills on do­nated in­stru­ments or read. They are also re­quired to work or at­tend school, whether it be a trade school or col­lege. The state will pay for their ed­u­ca­tion in a state col­lege be­cause they still are con­sid­ered to be in fos­ter care at the shel­ter.

They also get help from their own “cir­cle of sup­port” — con­sist­ing of their case worker, ther­a­pists, min­is­ters and teach­ers.

“Our vi­sion is to get to a point where this fa­cil­ity isn’t needed,” chief ex­ec­u­tive Kelly White said.

To do that, White and the shel­ter staff mem­bers hope their pro­grams can break the cy­cle of bad de­ci­sions that limit many fos­ter chil­dren and help them lead pro­duc­tive lives.

“For these kids, it’s al­most like a div­ing board that’s too short. … You’re ready to bounce, but if there’s noth­ing there, you’ll fall through,” Steege said. “We’re giv­ing them a lit­tle more length. They still have to dive, but we’re help­ing them.”

James Brosher

James Brosher pho­tos

Jef­frey Ne­cas is team man­ager for the boys’ cot­tage, which houses those ages 6 to 2 . The non­profit LifeWorks is pro­vid­ing ser­vices to the young men.

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