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Foster-Child Power 

Microstipends for parentless youths got slashed by Arnold. Will kids fight back?

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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In October, on the eve of big cuts to the state’s child-welfare system, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger boasted of signing other bills to help foster youths in 2010. While slashing more than $80 million from the foster-care budget, Schwarzenegger promised that his signature on a group of other bills would “provide youth with the right tools when they transition out of foster care, and these bills help make that possible by improving their access to quality education and providing them with resources to be successful as independent adults.”

A week after Schwarzenegger signed the six bills, however, the state Department of Social Services told the public foster-care systems up and down the state that new cuts were coming, including one trim that wiped out the entire $3.6 million budget for so-called Emancipated Foster Youth Stipends.

Of tens of millions in cuts described in an internal e-mail, L.A. County’s $1.4 million loss of microstipends for foster kids may seem paltry. But the money provides these teenagers — who because of the law are forced out of their foster homes with few resources at age 18 — with badly needed cash. They use it for transportation to college, security deposits on dorm rooms and fees to sign up for vocational schools. The loss of these small sums hits kids hard as they transition to self-reliance years before most young adults from intact families are ready to do the same.

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This transition is so jarring that a quarter of the kids pushed out of foster homes or families eventually, or immediately, encounter homelessness.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich in November predicted, “The loss of these funds will directly contribute to [foster youths’] homelessness, joblessness and long-term dependence.”

Department of Children and Family Services administrators believe these cuts were only the beginning, with state government facing a $21 billion deficit over the next 18 months and some pundits several days ago suggesting that California might default on its debts. “The well-being of children and youth under our care is the number-one priority,” says DCFS Director Trish Ploehn. “We are exploring strategies to ensure our youths’ needs are met.” Those include reaching out to the private sector, and in some cases relying on the voices of foster youths themselves.

In 2009, an estimated 1,800 youths will “age out” of the system in Los Angeles County alone — and be expected, at 18, to somehow make it on their own. Studies have shown that nationally just more than half of these teenagers earn a high school diploma, and only 2 to 3 percent earn a college degree. Some 84 percent of those who grow up in foster care will become unmarried parents, and 30 percent will go on public assistance.

The disappearance of the modest stipends, and the dwindling money for so-called transitional housing to keep the teenagers from a life on the streets, are widely expected to make matters worse for thousands of youths concentrated in L.A. County.

Research released in March suggests that spending more money, not less, and extending their care until 21 rather than 18 makes more fiscal sense in states weighed down by the costs of incarceration, welfare, Medicaid and homelessness. A study by the University of Washington School of Social Work found that caring for young adults until age 21 could mean a return of $2.41 on every government dollar spent in California.

The study narrowly focuses on the increased earning potential if youths stay in foster care past age 18. It did not take into account the extra savings if those youths also avoid prison or welfare. In California, the Department of Corrections estimated that the annual cost of incarcerating one person has already jumped to $53,000 in fiscal year 2009-10.

Another study, commissioned by the St. Louis–based Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiatives, showed that of the 12,000 young men nationally who “age out” of the foster-care system every year, 20 percent are likely to become career criminals.

The county’s Emancipation Services Director, Rhelda Shabazz, is also trying to cope with a badly slashed $13.1 million independent-living program budget, which is spent on services and training to help youths handle “emancipation” at 18. She says “everyone was in shock,” when she realized that her department would have only $80,000 a month to spread among 5,000 youths between the ages of 14 and 21 for the rest of the fiscal year. That means no more help with tuition, books, supplies, exam fees and other needs.

“It’s mortifying,” Shabazz says. Desperate, her office is reaching out to anyone who can help. “We are going to go out to faith-based organizations and ask them to sponsor children — pay for their flights home from college, donate $500 for their security deposits.”

There’s palpable fear that hard-fought recent gains may be lost, such as those in Compton, which once had the worst foster-care field office in Los Angeles County. Throughout the 1990s in Compton, money was wasted, kids were not protected and human tragedies mounted. But after key reforms in 2004, things improved for foster kids both in Compton and countywide.

However, those reforms required spending money up front to avoid steep societal costs later on. Many, including Shabazz, now fear a backsliding as budget money dries up. “I sit here and I seem all calm and composed,” she says. “But on the inside it is like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”

With such a shaky safety net, it’s beginning to dawn on some within the foster care–rights movement that the real power against budget cuts might be the kids themselves. Foster children have no powerful lobby in Sacramento, so some adults are working to turn these youths into a lobby of their own.

In Compton, that idea is being shepherded by Zaid Gayle, who runs Peace4Kids, a nonprofit that gives foster youths a place to find adult mentors and learn life skills like finding a place to live. The emphasis at Peace4Kids is on giving the youths the confidence to ignore the statistics.

Mickey McKinney, a former foster youth working with Peace4Kids, recently sat at a long table at the group’s Compton office with Gayle and foster youth George White. McKinney laughed hollowly about opportunities in Compton for foster teens who must somehow support themselves in a county with one of the worst unemployment rates in the U.S. “There isn’t one bed for foster kids after they ‘emancipate’ here in Compton,” McKinney says. “The nearest one is 11 miles away. There is nothing for them.”

White, a thin 17-year-old with dreadlocks and an easy smile, has decided to do something about the state cuts and their effect on kids. Speaking softly, he says he’s launching a Web site, projecthomebound.com, to spread the word that roughly 4,500 youths — including himself — will be “emancipated” from their group homes and foster families this year in California.

A quarter of them will experience homelessness. That’s what happened to White’s brother. But White refuses to be a victim. He’s working on his Web site, organizing a 4K awareness run and planning to ride 1,149 miles alone on his bicycle — a figure representing the number of newly “aged-out” youths who will call the streets home this year.

White’s campaign is called “All I Did Was Turn 18.”

“I am filled with gates of opportunity,” White says earnestly. “Foster care is the best thing that happened to me.”

White has had it better than many of his young peers in the troubled foster-care system. Rather than being pushed from home to home, he had stability, having been cared for by the same foster parents for 11 years. While his foster-care caseworker never told him how to prepare, emotionally or financially, for the day he turns 18, he got crucial help from Peace4Kids, and from Gayle and McKinney. Among other things, they advised him to fight for himself.

“You need to want to help yourself,” White says, believing that at the rate things are going, it will take the toughness and resilience of foster kids themselves to fix the ailing system.

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