Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
By many measures, Ebony Dycus, 19, is soaring. She aged out of foster care several months ago after more than six years in 11 different foster homes. Today, she is a freshman accounting major at Indiana State University and has been the secretary of the youth board at Connected by 25, the site for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative project in Indianapolis. Dycus also teaches other youth in foster care about money matters and is saving for her future through our Opportunity Passport™.
Dycus makes it all look easy, but she would tell you that a big reason for her success has been Chris Mundy, her Court-Appointed Special Advocate, who has been at her side every step of the way.
“He has had great input and great opinions,” said Dycus. “Sometimes, it feels like you are there by yourself when you don’t have any parents. But your CASA is there for you. It has made everything easier. He really picked my brain about what I would be doing after I emancipated and helped me set goals.”
Mundy, who works with Child Advocates, Inc. in Indianapolis, is modest about his efforts: “Ebony is really self-driven. I felt like my role was to try to have her in a position in which she would have support in place after she aged out. I tried to get her to think a little bigger about her life and where she was headed.”
A Growing Population Needing Support
Once an invisible population, older youth aging out of foster care have received much more national attention over the past decade. As a result, many nonprofit organizations are making this group a priority and offering an array of resources to help them. These include National CASA’s new Fostering Futures curriculum and our Initiative’s Opportunity Passport, which offers financial literacy training and a matched savings account to purchase approved assets. The Opportunity Passport is part of Jim Casey’s five key strategies, which are youth engagement; increased opportunities; partnerships and resources; research and communications; and public will and policy.
State and federal policymakers have also implemented a raft of new laws and policies to improve outcomes, such as a provision addressing the needs of youth aging out of foster care in the sweeping health care reform law passed by Congress last year.
Over the past decade, the number of youth aging out of foster care has increased dramatically from 19,000 in 1999 to nearly 30,000 in 2008. While these numbers sound large, they are far from insurmountable. Foundations, organizations and policymakers who want to make a difference have it within their power to prevent the poor outcomes for these young people that cost society dearly.
When I think back to my years as director of Missouri’s Department of Social Services, I know the child welfare field has come a long way in recognizing the needs of older youth in care and in providing supports for them. But I also know much more remains to be done because too many of these youth are still unable to complete their educations, find housing and jobs or get medical care; they still lack the supports that families typically provide. A study released last year by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington detailed the dismal outcomes:
- By age 24, only 6% of young people who left foster care had completed two- or four-year college degrees.
- Fewer than half were working.
- Nearly 40% had been homeless or “couch-surfed” since leaving foster care.
- Three quarters of the young women were receiving public assistance.
- Nearly 60% of the young men had been convicted of a crime at some point in their young lives.
As Mark Courtney, the study’s principal author, notes: “These are young people who were placed in the care of the state, not because they were committing crimes but because they had been abused or neglected. We were dismayed to find that almost a fifth of young people need significant help, perhaps for many years, after leaving foster care.”
The alarming bottom line is that a decade after Congress passed the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, many of these young people simply are not being connected to supportive families and do not have the resources we provide to our own children.
The Chafee Act did significantly improve the Independent Living Program by doubling federal funding to $140 million so states could provide youth in foster care with training to obtain employment or prepare for postsecondary education, learn daily living skills, prevent substance abuse and maintain good health. The law provided states with federal vouchers for postsecondary education and the option to extend Medicaid to age 21.
The problem is that $140 million—an amount that has not increased in 11 years—isn’t enough for all emancipating youth, especially as this population has grown so significantly. In fact, most estimates indicate that fewer than half of eligible youth get any kind of assistance from Chafee. As a result, states find themselves patching together additional educational, mental health and job training services, but these often are not well coordinated, leaving young people to navigate multiple bureaucracies on their own.
Landmark Legislation in 2008
To fill the gaps, Congress passed sweeping legislation in 2008 called the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which offers partial federal reimbursement to states if they opt to allow youth to remain in care past age 18. The law also places new requirements on states, including notifying relatives about the possibility of kinship care, placing siblings together in care and requiring state agencies to create individualized transition plans 90 days before youth leave foster care.
But after the law passed, the economy tanked, and states have been slow to implement Fostering Connections due to tight budgets. States also need good ideas for sound policy and practice to implement some of the new provisions, such as the requirement that young people be in charge of their own transition plans. Jim Casey’s successful experience with engaging youth offers some lessons in that regard.
Both major federal laws—Chafee and Fostering Connections—go a long way toward helping older youth in foster care. But they also fall short in important ways. Neither law emphasizes economic self-sufficiency or the importance of lifelong relationships with caring adults.
The National Youth Transition Database is another new development that has great potential but is rife with challenges. The Chafee Act requires states, as of last October, to collect and report both demographic and outcome data on youth transitioning from foster care. The first batch of data is due this May. States are to begin with a baseline survey of youth at age 17 and then track them after they leave the system at ages 19 and 21. States are supposed to report on their services and supports for older youth as well as on outcomes, including financial self-sufficiency, experience with homelessness and educational attainment. Not surprisingly, the challenges of data collection are immense. Because the penalties for noncompliance are nominal, I am concerned that states will risk the penalties rather than track down youth who have left care. What worries me is that without this data, we have no true measure of how our funding, policies and practices are affecting outcomes for these youth.
A Call to Action by the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth
In 2009, US Senators Chuck Grassley, R-IA, and Mary Landrieu, D-LA, created the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, which sponsored working sessions to frame options for child welfare reform. The caucus did an outstanding job of engaging youth in these sessions, including several young people from Jim Casey sites. The caucus recently issued a call to action (see bit.ly/CalltoAct) addressing issues such as group homes, congregate care, an over-reliance on psychotropic medications, sibling connection, youth engagement, mentoring, pregnant and parenting teens, family preservation activities and child welfare financing.
“The US foster care system is broken in many places, and it must be fixed,” said Sen. Landrieu. “State and federal governments combined are spending in excess of $25 billion on the foster care system each year, but the results are not something we can be proud of. Recruiting loving and skilled foster parents, requiring funding streams to follow the child, securing a mentor for every young person aging out of the system and strengthening programs like CASA are just a few important steps Congress is focused on.”
Sen. Grassley added: “One of the goals of the Caucus on Foster Youth is to hear directly from the youth in foster care about the policies that affect them. They’re telling us that some key improvements have been very helpful, but there are still gaps in services and persistent problems that a combination of policy changes and citizen involvement can ease.”
New Services for Older Youth in Development
In addition to policymakers making older youth a priority, I’m especially pleased that major national organizations and funders, such as National CASA, are recognizing the tremendous challenges facing older youth and are providing services for them. Thanks to generous support from the Walmart Foundation, National CASA is piloting its new Fostering Futures program in 16 sites nationwide and is making a real difference. In Fostering Futures, CASA volunteers advocate for and advise foster youth ages 14–21 as well as help them identify supportive adult connections and develop specific transition plans. Based on the “possible selves” research of University of Michigan professor Daphna Oyserman and University of Kansas professor Michael Hock (see sidebar on previous page), Fostering Futures provides CASA volunteers with extra training to build a rapport with older youth and to conduct a needs assessment so they can better advocate for young people.
“This new curriculum gives CASA volunteers more structure to ask questions they might not have asked older youth about their needs, such as housing, school and their relationships with their birth families,” said Brian Washburn, National CASA training director. “And it offers research-based tools to help young people envision what their futures could become and how to get there.”
Tiffany Denson, transitioning youth director at Child Advocates San Antonio, Inc., reports that Fostering Futures already has helped immensely. She recalled a youth who struggled with writing during a Fostering Futures exercise. As the CASA volunteer observed the youth, it became obvious that the young man was nearly illiterate despite having been promoted through the school system and even earning an A in his high school English class.
“It was painfully clear that this 17-year-old couldn’t write basic words, but no one had paid attention to him,” Denson said. “That one experience of a CASA volunteer sitting with the youth and going through the Fostering Futures assessment identified a major need and a roadmap for advocacy. This advocate will press the school for testing. Once a clearer picture emerges, we can advocate for specific services for this young person. This tool opened a door.”
Findings of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
At the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, we have learned a lot about how this population can be served most effectively. The Initiative is focused solely on helping states and communities assist older youth in foster care in making successful transitions to adulthood. We are learning that we must actively focus on all five strategies mentioned above in order for progress to be achieved. We know that not only do these strategies help youth, but they also pay off financially: Our 11 sites nationwide generate a $6.50 return for every dollar invested, according to a recent study (see bit.ly/JCYOI_Study).
We have found that engaging youth is an extremely effective strategy—both in terms of planning for their own transitions from foster care and for improving the public systems that affect youth in care. I’m proud that former Opportunity Passport participant Dianna Walters is scheduled to lead a track of powerful workshops on youth engagement at National CASA’s 2011 annual conference. Walters aged out without a family after nine years in foster care, joined the Youth Leadership Advisory Team in Maine at 16 and has advocated passionately for youth in care. She is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management. An important focus of her research has been best practices in transition planning, which will help states trying to implement Fostering Connections.
Each Jim Casey site has a youth leadership board in which young people are empowered to become better advocates for improving the public systems that affect them. Youth have advocated for significant changes in the way public systems serve young people aging out of care by meeting with federal and state lawmakers. For instance, seven of our states have extended Medicaid coverage for youth formerly in foster care from age 18 to 21, providing three additional years of health care coverage. Four of our states successfully worked to get tuition waived and other educational supports expanded, giving youth a better chance of getting a post-secondary education. Our youth boards in Maine and Iowa led successful efforts to get state laws passed that give siblings in different foster care placements the right to visit each other.
Through our Opportunity PassportTM, young people are trained in money matters, such as budgeting, balancing a checkbook and using credit wisely. All participants have bank accounts, and savings are matched up to $1,000 to buy assets that build future economic success, such as tuition, housing deposits, cars to get to work and school, medical expenses or business start-up costs. Initially, many people were skeptical about whether young people in foster care could actually save money. But over the past five years, more than 3,600 young people have taken our financial literacy training and participated in our Opportunity Passport. Collectively, they have saved nearly $4 million and made more than 2,500 asset purchases, drawing matching funds. Interestingly, we are finding that the most successful savers are young people with the greatest challenges—those who are parents or who have been homeless.
Danielle Brunetta of San Diego is one of these youth. Several years ago, she was pregnant with her second child and struggling to maintain a part-time job because she lacked reliable transportation to work. “Every day was a struggle trying to figure it all out,” she said.
Brunetta became an Opportunity Passport participant and youth board member. She not only saved money but also received training on shopping for cars. After a year, Brunetta received a $1,000 match for the $1,000 she had saved and was able to put the $2,000 down on a van. The van enabled her to work full time and go to school at night.
“With the help of the Opportunity Passport, I was able to purchase a car, use my time more effectively and tackle more tasks throughout the day,” she said. “I’ve maintained full-time employment, continued a college education, and I can still be home in time to read bedtime stories to my sons.”
New Legislation and Other Hopeful Signs
I’m hopeful about a new bill—the Foster Youth Financial Security Act of 2010—recently introduced in the US House of Representatives that mirrors Jim Casey’s Opportunity Passport. Among other things, the bill would require states to establish and manage Individual Development Accounts for each child in foster care who is at least 14 years old, with funds available to cover housing, education and employment expenses. The measure would also require states to provide financial education to all youth in care.
Beyond this strategy for financial self-sufficiency, I’d also like policymakers to mandate that all young people leaving foster care be discharged to a family, legal guardian, adoptive parent or a permanently committed, caring adult. I’d like to see federal and state laws and policies that say when youth leave foster care, they must have somewhere to go.
Over my many years working with older youth, I’ve seen two traits over and over: Young people in transition display remarkable resiliency as well as a powerful drive for family that I believe is hard-wired in all of us.
In Indianapolis, Chris Mundy doesn’t pretend to be a substitute for Ebony Dycus’s parent. But as her guardian ad litem and a committed caring adult in her life, Mundy made an important difference. Dycus said that while she was still in care, Mundy helped her communicate with her foster family and called her high school when things were rocky.
“I would go to the school and talk to the social workers if I thought the school should have done something that hadn’t taken place,” says Mundy. “She didn’t have a parent who could go to the school and stay on top of things.”
They also discussed the issues that Dycus would face in college, such as grades and transportation. Mundy tried, for example, to get her to think about where she would go during school breaks. “She wouldn’t be like other kids and have a place to go,” he said. “We talked it all through.”
Buying a car was a constant conversation. “If I wanted to buy a car, for example, Mr. Chris would tell me I needed to wait,” says Dycus. “It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but in the end, it was a good idea to wait.”
Mundy still chuckles about their car battles. “I was trying to get her to think about the big picture and not to zero in on immediate things she wanted,” he said.
I can hear myself giving the same advice to my own son.