center helps build bridge to adulthood for older foster kids
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.”
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.