Calif. law gives foster care kids a boost into adulthood

A 19-year-old’s brave steps into independence after so many foster homes, she lost count

OAKLAND, Calif. — Growing up in foster care, Janey Batiste craved independence.

As she moved from home to home, she wanted the freedom to make choices for herself, tired of taking orders from social workers and foster parents who would leave her life as quickly as they entered it.

In her mind, Batiste was alone, so she lived that way, which meant she might run away or strike out impulsively. She imagined her grown-up emancipation from the system as a time when she would be accountable to no one but herself.

Janey Batiste is in a program that extends foster care for those who would normally age out of the sytem, giving them guidance as they become successful adults.

But adulthood is different from what the 19-year-old expected. A single mother dedicated to her 2-year-old son, Kaiden, she attends cosmetology school at a community college in Oakland. At night, she works as a pizza delivery driver. She pays bills and rents a bare-bones one-bedroom apartment.

If settling into adulthood is difficult for most teenagers, foster youths face what can seem like impossible odds. Child-welfare authorities have been placed them in someone else’s home after deeming their biological parents unstable or even dangerous.

They may move from house to house and never reunite with their biological parents. They may experience physical or sexual abuse at home or in foster care. They often don’t graduate from high school or earn a GED. The adult lives of foster youths, according to research, are more likely to be marked by unemployment, incarceration, homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Batiste, however, is working hard to change her fortunes, and she is not alone. The state of California is supporting her efforts and those of thousands of other young adults by permitting them to stay in foster care until the age of 21.

The legislation, slowly rolled out over the past two years, is meant to ease the transition to adulthood for foster youths who can’t necessarily rely on a parent for advice or financial and emotional support. Child-welfare experts say that the bill, despite some challenges, is giving stability to foster youths who might otherwise feel lonely and adrift as they age out of the system.

Batiste, a petite young woman with a big smile, knows the feeling. “It’s teaching me how to be more self-sufficient and how to prepare myself for when the program is up,” she said of the law. “I’ll know what to do. I won’t be stuck.”

The enchanted number 18

This is what Congress envisioned when it passed a law in 2008 that awarded matching funds to states that extended foster care past age 18.

At the time, California was mired in a budget deficit that resulted in deep cuts to social services, but state legislators and advocates, who long wanted to extend foster care, were prepared to take advantage of the new federal funding.

Before the California legislature passed its bill in 2010, known as the Fostering Connections to Success Act, adult foster youths rarely stayed in care. Meanwhile, transitional housing programs and subsidies were available but often had long waiting lists and didn’t require the involvement of a social worker.

For many foster youths, 18 is an enchanted number. That is the age when the state releases minors in its care and when they may finally make large decisions without consulting a guardian or social worker. At 18, they are legally considered adults, and that’s often what they are forced to quickly become; there are no parents to coddle them well into their early 20s, when most youths finally find their footing. Though they yearn for independence, foster youths often discover they lack the skills and network to thrive at school or in the workforce.

A few years ago, this reality was far from Batiste’s mind. She was by turns a rebellious and heartbroken teenager who felt no one was invested in her future. Though she sought freedom, she also spent her life searching for what most children consider a birthright: a loving family. “I wanted some people I could call Mom or Dad,” she said.

A lot of us, we want to know that somebody cares about us, that we mean something to somebody.

Janey Batiste

Batiste has been in foster care for as long as she can remember. Her biological parents weren’t ready for a baby, she said, and her mother was often hospitalized with mental illness.

She lived in one group home for several years and at least five foster homes; she can’t recall the final tally. Batiste recounts those placements with the same disappointed refrain, “It ended up not working out.” One foster mother took in Batiste and her sister but then passed away. One family, Batiste said, treated their foster children poorly but deceived social workers by cleaning the house and dressing the children nicely during official visits.

Her life might still feel like a series of dead ends if it hadn't been for the love of a foster mother with whom Batiste was placed a few years ago. That relationship has motivated her to overcome the odds.

“A lot of us, we want to know that somebody cares about us, that we mean something to somebody,” Batiste said.

She stopped disappearing for days with friends and earned her high school diploma. She took classes that teach foster youths skills like applying for a job, grocery shopping and finding child care. Now she is doing what California legislators hoped: using the extension of foster care to chart a course to adulthood.

‘I want to be there for him’

By attending community college, Batiste is meeting one of four requirements to stay in the system. Other youths complete high school or an equivalent program, work at least 80 hours a month or participate in an employment program. Young adults with medical conditions that keep them from work or school are exempted from these requirements.

Some youths receive a monthly $800 stipend to live independently, while others remain in foster homes or transitional housing. They are required to meet regularly with a social worker who is supposed to act more like a coach than a case manager, helping them learn how to make decisions about everything from household budgeting to applying to schools to living with roommates.

Batiste wants to make the right choices for her 2-year-old son, Kaiden.

“It is the most comprehensive program that provides support to a very vulnerable population,” said Angie Schwartz, policy director at Alliance for Children’s Rights, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that was closely involved in drafting and implementing the law. 

At first, Batiste received the monthly stipend to live independently. Many foster youths prefer this option to others but quickly find they need a job to help pay for expenses. Batiste rented a room from her grandfather but left when the house became too crowded.

Now she lives in subsidized transitional housing provided by First Place for Youth, an agency in Oakland that serves foster children. Though she doesn’t see her county social worker frequently, she works with a case manager at First Place for Youth.

For Batiste, the hard work of adulthood is about making the right choices for her son.

“I don’t want him to have to go through none of the things I went through,” she said. “I don’t want him to have to be in foster care. I don’t want him to want for much. I want to be there for him like my mom wasn’t.

Goal of self-sufficiency

With nearly 65,000 youths in its system, California has the largest foster-care population in the country. When the federal law passed, the state put forth the most ambitious proposal to extend foster care. Several states have also made it possible for youths older than 18 to stay in care, with varying degrees of support.

“There’s no question that people are looking to California to see what it has learned,” said Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

There have been many lessons — not all of them easy ones. Since its debut two years ago, legislators passed four additional bills to amend the law after hearing from youths and social workers about confusing rules or complications with eligibility. One piece of legislation made it possible for youths to re-enter the program if a guardian or adoptive parent dies before the child’s 21st birthday.

Two recent reports, one by Courtney and his colleagues and another published by the Children’s Advocacy Institute, a California-based research organization, highlighted concerns about the law, including high caseloads for attorneys and social workers and lack of immediate foster-care placements. Some youths are surprised by the responsibilities of adulthood and find it hard to stay qualified for the program, while some social workers are unused to seeing a client as an adult rather than a child who needs protecting.

Despite these issues, the program has been unexpectedly popular. More than 7,000 youths voluntarily remain in care, according to the latest data.In Alameda County, where Batiste lives, less than 10 percent of eligible youth have opted out of the program. In Los Angeles County, which claims the state’s largest foster care population, 80 percent have stayed.  

Harvey Kawasaki, division chief at the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County, said more social workers had been hired to reduce onerous caseloads after the law’s rollout. Staffers receive training in how to work with foster youths as young adults.

She pushed me to keep me going, and that’s good. That’s what I need.

Janey Batiste on a foster mother

“Before they are 18 years of age, our legal mandate is safety,” he said. “Now you’re really focusing on self-sufficiency.” This means that if a youth wants a job, for example, it’s not enough for a social worker to offer a referral. Instead, she must help her client identify training opportunities or employment services offered by the county or state.

The preparedness and training of the social workers is critical to the program’s success, said Melanie Delgado, a staff attorney who authored the Children’s Advocacy Institute report. “This is a great law, but it’s not going to achieve the ends that were intended unless the people in charge of helping the youth understand the law.”

Officials are hoping youths in the program can maintain stable housing, get a degree or vocational certificate and avoid the criminal-justice system. Research conducted by Courtney and his colleagues suggests that those in extended foster care are more likely to achieve such goals, but data won’t be available on the success of California’s program until well after youths begin exiting the program later this year.

Batiste has watched as friends who couldn’t or didn’t want to take advantage of the law found it hard to grow up. They didn’t get a high school diploma, or they struggled to stay employed. She had to learn how to “think about things more than once,” trading impulsivity for discipline. She focuses on running her own salon one day; she’s proud of her braiding skills, and several of her family members have gone into the beauty trade. She has dreamed of salon ownership since she was 12; under the auspices of California’s law, she’s finally on a path to fulfill that goal.

Recently, when the pressures of paying bills, working and being a single mother closed in, Batiste turned to her foster mother for the kind of guidance she never had as a child.

“She pushed me to keep going, and that’s good,” Batiste said. “That’s what I need.”

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