An ex­tended safety net

Youths in foster sys­tem get care until age 21, but strug­gles per­sist

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Nina Agrawal

Eric Usher dreams of work­ing as an au­dio pro­ducer, driv­ing his friends around in a Maserati and liv­ing by the beach.

But most im­por­tantly, Usher says, he looks for­ward to be­ing in­de­pen­dent.

“I won’t have any sys­tem sup­port, and I’ll be liv­ing on my own,” is how he de­scribes it.

For now, Usher must con­tent him­self with a spare ground-floor apart­ment a few miles from down­town L.A.

At 19, he is learn­ing to be in­de­pen­dent by trial and er­ror. He re­cently racked up al­most $700 in ca­ble and In­ter­net bills — the re­sult of con­fus­ing pric­ing and un­ex­pected charges.

“I made a bad de­ci­sion,” he said. “It’s a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It won’t hap­pen again.”

Usher has been in the foster sys­tem since he was 8. He doesn’t have par­ents who can bail him out or guide him smoothly into adult­hood.

But un­like most foster youths of the past, he’s able to get help from the De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices until he turns 21, thanks to a state pro­gram called ex­tended foster care, which be­gan in 2012. The pro­gram was cre­ated to as­sist youths who, on av­er­age, fare far worse in adult­hood than peers who have not had in­volve­ment with the child wel­fare sys­tem.

Of­ten re­ferred to sim­ply as “AB 12,” af­ter the Assem­bly bill that cre­ated it, ex­tended foster care of­fers young peo­ple who are still in the foster sys­tem at age 18 a roof over their head, funding and sup­port ser­vices for three ex­tra years, as long as they go to school, work, at­tend a jo­breadi­ness pro­gram or have a med­i­cal

con­di­tion that pre­vents them from meet­ing th­ese re­quire­ments.

In fis­cal year 2015-16, Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices spent about $91 mil­lion on ex­tended foster care in Los Angeles County. Fed­eral, state and county funds pay for the ex­ten­sion.

Al­though the pro­gram’s suc­cess has been un­even, the vast ma­jor­ity of el­i­gi­ble teenagers — about 80% in L.A. County — choose to re­main in care.

“AB 12 is help­ing a whole lot,” said Judge Mar­garet Henry, who pre­sides over a court­room at the Los Angeles Chil­dren’s Court specif­i­cally for 18- to 21-year-olds. “The se­cu­rity of hav­ing that money is such a re­lief that they can think about other goals.”

Re­search con­ducted by Chapin Hall at the Univer­sity of Chicago showed that Cal­i­for­nia youths who stayed in care for one year past age 18 were much more likely than those who didn’t to en­roll in col­lege and to have fi­nan­cial as­sets, and less likely to rely on public as­sis­tance or to be­come home­less.

Stay­ing in care was not, how­ever, as­so­ci­ated with sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in em­ploy­ment, earn­ings, health or rates of preg­nancy.

Some young adults strug­gle dur­ing and af­ter the ex­tended pro­gram. They want to be in­de­pen­dent but lack key skills, and the stakes are high. Se­cur­ing af­ford­able hous­ing is a bar­rier. So is nav­i­gat­ing a com­pli­cated bu­reau­cracy. Youths who have men­tal ill­nesses and sub­stance abuse is­sues need more in­ten­sive sup­port.

“There’s still a mis­match be­tween the ad­e­quacy of sup­ports and the needs of all young peo­ple,” said Mark Court­ney, who led the Chapin Hall re­search.

Young peo­ple who haven’t left the foster sys­tem by age 18 may have cy­cled through five or more homes in as many years. The cir­cum­stances that made it dif­fi­cult to find per­ma­nent place­ments for them be­fore they reached adult­hood, such as trauma, sub­stance abuse or in­car­cer­a­tion, also can make it dif­fi­cult for them to suc­ceed in­de­pen­dently af­ter­ward.

“There’s an at­ti­tude that when you turn 18 … you’re on your own now, you fig­ure it out,” said Jen­nifer Lor­son, an at­tor­ney su­per­vi­sor at Chil­dren’s Law Cen­ter, which rep­re­sents youths in de­pen­dency court. “Where we stand is, th­ese are ba­si­cally our kids. The sys­tem raised them. We’re like par­ents. Par­ents don’t just close the door on their kid when they turn 18.”

Court­ney’s re­search showed that most 17-yearolds in the sys­tem live in foster or group homes, where they are un­der near-con­stant adult su­per­vi­sion. But af­ter they turn 18, they look for ar­range­ments with more au­ton­omy.

In ex­tended foster care, they have two op­tions. They can stay in a “su­per­vised in­de­pen­dent liv­ing place­ment,” where they find their own hous­ing, of­ten an apart­ment or dorm, and re­ceive an $889 check and a visit from a so­cial worker once a month. Or they can stay in tran­si­tional hous­ing, which sup­plies the apart­ment as well as ad­di­tional case man­age­ment.

Just over a third of the 2,500 18- to 21-year-olds in foster care in Los Angeles County are in su­per­vised place­ments, but only 315 tran­si­tional hous­ing beds are avail­able for this pop­u­la­tion.

In 2014, Say­dra Haw­ley, then 18, was liv­ing with her foster mom and tak­ing classes at Cy­press Col­lege. When she got preg­nant, she moved into her boyfriend’s two-bed­room apart­ment in Para­mount and ap­plied to have it ap­proved as a su­per­vised place­ment.

She used her monthly check to pay for part of the $1,200 rent, car in­sur­ance, food, di­a­pers and in­stall­ments on a crib.

But Haw­ley and her boyfriend didn’t get along. She thought about mov­ing out.

“I talked to over 20 land­lords, but they all wanted the money up front,” Haw­ley said. So she stayed. “It was that or live in the street,” she said.

Haw­ley eventually com­pleted a Job Corps phar­macy tech­ni­cian train­ing pro­gram and got a job in Orange. But stand­ing in the same spot count­ing pills all day bored her.

“There wasn’t one minute I wasn’t look­ing at the clock,” Haw­ley said.

She had no choice but to keep work­ing, es­pe­cially af­ter turn­ing 21 last fall. At the urg­ing of a friend, she ap­plied for a job as a mail car­rier, which she likes much bet­ter. “The time moves by so quick,” she said. “I’m never bored.”

Earn­ing about $16 an hour plus over­time, Haw­ley now makes enough money to af­ford a one-bed­room apart­ment in Bell for her­self and her daugh­ter, and to pay for day­care.

“I feel like I got more than enough” from ex­tended foster care, she said. “I like that it makes you work or go to school be­cause eventually we all grow up and not ev­ery­one has some­one to take care of them for­ever.”

Many youth can’t af­ford a su­per­vised place­ment or don’t meet the cri­te­ria, which in­clude be­ing able to man­age money, be a re­spon­si­ble ten­ant and han­dle daily tasks such as gro­cery shop­ping.

Usher, the as­pir­ing pro­ducer, is in tran­si­tional hous­ing. Since en­rolling last De­cem­ber, he’s made progress in fits and starts.

There was the fi­asco with the ca­ble, which Usher bought so he could watch sports. He got a job at McDon­ald’s, but quit af­ter a few months with­out hav­ing his next job lined up. He en­rolled in classes at Los Angeles South­west Col­lege and then walked out the minute he saw the board in math class. And he has yet to ob­tain a driver’s li­cense.

“He’s test­ing his free­dom out,” said Daniel Tor­res, who ad­vises Usher on school and jobs as part of the pro­gram. “The way they learn is through the mis­takes that they make.”

Tor­res and oth­ers who work with young adults in foster care strad­dle a fine line be­tween sup­port­ing th­ese youth and let­ting them make their own decisions. “It’s about cre­at­ing a safety net for them to fail,” he said.

That think­ing rep­re­sents a shift for child wel­fare work­ers, who tra­di­tion­ally have fo­cused on the phys­i­cal safety of mi­nors. Mak­ing the switch hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily been smooth.

Ash­ley Gon­za­lez said she felt scared and alone when she turned 18 and was placed in tran­si­tional hous­ing in 2014.

“I didn’t know who I was or what I was do­ing or where I was go­ing to go from here,” she said. “I [was] just get­ting thrown to the sharks.”

Gon­za­lez at first made “a dumb de­ci­sion” to work in­stead of at­tend­ing school. But ac­cus­tomed to mov­ing around, she never stayed long in any job. She worked at a Jack in the Box, as a nurse’s as­sis­tant, as a se­cu­rity guard and, at one point, as a strip­per, she said.

Gon­za­lez had hoped to study psy­chol­ogy at Los Angeles Trade–Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, but with­out guid­ance, she en­rolled in too heavy a course load. “I didn’t know how to co­or­di­nate things, how to jug­gle,” she said. Over­whelmed, she with­drew from her classes.

“I had a roof over my head,” Gon­za­lez said of ex­tended foster care, but “I didn’t get much help.”

Gon­za­lez moved out in June, af­ter a dis­pute with her room­mates. She said she stayed with a friend in Twen­ty­nine Palms, slept in her car and most re­cently was taken in by her former foster mom.

Shortly af­ter turn­ing 20, Gon­za­lez took a hard look at her op­tions. “I was think­ing, ‘Where am I go­ing to go? How am I go­ing to live?’ ” she said. “I just thought, ‘Why not the mil­i­tary?’ I don’t re­ally have any other choices.”

Gon­za­lez re­cently turned 21 and is sched­uled to start ba­sic train­ing at the end of the month.

Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices of­fi­cials said they pro­vide young peo­ple with ad­e­quate sup­port, but they also aim to tran­si­tion foster youths away from de­pend­ing on the de­part­ment.

“The ob­jec­tive is to build net­works of sup­port that rely less and less on” the child wel­fare sys­tem, said Bran­don Ni­chols, act­ing direc­tor of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices.

De­pen­dency at­tor­neys say the county could do more. In court, they com­monly ask Henry sim­ply to or­der the de­part­ment to pro­vide ser­vices to which youths al­ready are en­ti­tled.

Some say help should ex­tend past age 21.

“I’d go to 26,” Henry said. “We’d have a lot more col­lege grad­u­ates, suc­cess­ful ca­reers — and fewer men­tal health prob­lems.”

Ni­chols said he thought there should be a pro­gram past age 21, but “there is an ex­per­tise here that we are chal­lenged with.” He sug­gested other agen­cies — the Los Angeles Home­less Ser­vices Author­ity, Los Angeles County Health Agency or De­part­ment of Public So­cial Ser­vices — may be bet­ter equipped.

For Usher, that cut­off is still two years away. He’s try­ing to make the most of the time he has.

In June, he re­ceived his guard card, which en­abled him to be­gin work as a pri­vate se­cu­rity guard at a down­town apart­ment com­plex. He earns $12 an hour, he said, and hopes to get a raise soon so he can start sav­ing money. One day, per­haps, he’ll study au­dio pro­duc­tion.

But first, he plans to pay off some bills.

Pho­to­graphs by Christina House For The Times

ERIC USHER, 19, on a bus to work, is in an ex­tended foster pro­gram that of­fers hous­ing and ser­vices to young adults until they turn 21.

Christina House For The Times

THE PRO­GRAM, cre­ated in 2012, helps youths like Usher, who tend to fare worse as adults than peers who weren’t in foster care.

Christina House For The Times

ERIC USHER is a pri­vate se­cu­rity guard, earn­ing $12 an hour. The ex­tended foster care pro­gram he is in al­lows him to con­tinue to re­ceive sup­port until he turns 21.

Christina House For The Times

STICKER SHOCK from a ca­ble bill is help­ing Usher, in his apart­ment near down­town L.A., learn in­de­pen­dence through his mis­takes. “I made a bad de­ci­sion,” the as­pir­ing au­dio pro­ducer says. “It won’t hap­pen again.”

Gary Coron­ado Los Angeles Times

JUDGE MAR­GARET HENRY, who pre­sides over cases at Chil­dren’s Court, says the pro­gram helps be­cause “the se­cu­rity of hav­ing that money is such a re­lief.”

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