Children's Voice Dec 2005

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From Custody to Career

After leaving foster care or incarceration, young people often struggle to find footholds in the work world.

Article and photos by Jennifer Michael

If only getting a job were as easy as writing a resume, buying a suit, and pounding the pavement. For seasoned professionals, this can work fine. But for young adults with only a high school diploma or GED and part-time, minimum wage job experience to their credit, launching a career can be a far greater challenge. Add a background spent in the foster care or criminal justice systems, and the job outlook can become even more complicated.

Each year, about 20,000 young adults leave foster care; and, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), some 100,000 youth are released from secure and residential facilities. Many of these young people lack family support and have little to no job experience, but they're forced to quickly find the means to support themselves in an already grim job market for young people.

According to the American Youth Policy Forum, the national teen employment rate declined to a new historical low in 2004. For youth leaving foster care or the criminal justice system, the outlook is bleaker. Foster care alumni who participated in a recent study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago were far less likely to be employed than were their same-age peers, and they were far more likely to be earning less than $10,000 a year.

And the outlook for young ex-offenders? Unemployment rates for youth ages 16-24 leaving incarceration is about 60%, compared with about 10% for other youth, according to YouthBuild USA.

Enrolling in a weekend job readiness workshop doesn't always cut it for these young people struggling to battle the odds. Fortunately, over the last decade, state agencies and private organizations have begun partnering to enhance transitional supports and services to youth leaving foster care or the juvenile justice system.

New or enhanced programs for youth are focusing on more holistic approaches to job readiness that spend weeks, if not months, on career development, building resume-writing and interviewing skills, and getting youth involved in community service projects to acquire hands-on work experience, build self-esteem, and learn leadership and teamwork skills--all before hitting the classified ads. Many programs also provide mentors, counselors, and job placement follow-up.

Maria Garin Jones, Director of Youth Services for CWLA, says youth need to be encouraged to take the reins themselves in career exploration and job hunting. "Young people need to be active, not passive, participants," she says. "Many times, young people leaving these systems aren't aware they have options and choices and the ability to make decisions about their futures."

Young people also need to think about more than just minimum wage jobs, Garin Jones adds, and consider careers leading to gainful employment and a secure future.

Leaving Care: Daniella's Story

On a hot, muggy June morning in Washington, DC, Daniella Rin Hover arrives bright and early at Covenant House, a shelter and child care agency for at-risk youth. Looking astute in small, rectangular eyeglasses with her dark hair pulled back from her face, and wearing a plaid dress jacket, Rin Hover is there to meet with the program's Washington director for advice on starting her own nonprofit organization to help youth leaving the foster care system.

At 23, Rin Hover is herself only a few years removed from the foster care system. At 20, she voluntarily left the New York City foster care system, despite being eligible to continue receiving services until age 21. "To me, it was about empowering myself," she says. "I wanted to be in the driver's seat."

Now Rin Hover wants to help improve the system she was so eager to leave, but it's been a struggle. Since leaving foster care--where she lived for five years after reporting her abusive father to the New York City authorities at age 15--she has married and has two small children. Her husband Veasna also lived in foster care since infancy.

During their transition from foster care, neither Veasna nor Daniella have had parents to fall back on while trying to take college courses, land careers, and pay bills. "It's not like we've been able to say, 'Hey mom and dad, can you pay our rent this month?' or 'Hey, can we come over for dinner?'" Daniella explains.

On their own for the first time, the young couple moved to Washington, enticed by job offers for both to work at a national organization assisting foster care youth. Neither stayed with the organization long, however, realizing they disagreed with the organization's mission and goals.

Daniella then spent several months helping to promote Aging Out, a documentary about youth transitioning from foster care that aired on PBS last May. The film featured Daniella and other youth. Now she is job-hunting full-time while Veasna watches their children, Elijah, 3, and Skye, 1. Both unemployed, they rely on public assistance.

"It's difficult to market myself," Rin Hover admits, noting she was unable to gain work experience while living in the foster care system. "The experience I did get was moving from high school to high school. I didn't have the stability. I didn't even have friends. I didn't get job training or do afterschool events. There was no encouragement to do that."

In high school, Rin Hover fell behind in her classes after attending four high schools in four years. She came close to giving up on school altogether until a guidance counselor encouraged her to take night classes to help her graduate on time.

She enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, on loans and worked in the college's community technology center. She also worked briefly as an assistant manager at McDonald's. After her second child was born, Rin Hover stopped classes at Trinity.

Even though her initial job prospects in Washington didn't work out, Daniella is determined to continue pursuing youth advocacy work, she explains to Judith Dobbins, Executive Director of Covenant House Washington. Dobbins encourages her to start a journal to clarify her ideas about how she wants to help youth, then explains how Covenant House operates.

"Everybody deserves an opportunity to reach their fullest potential," Dobbins says. "Our role in [the lives of at risk youth] is to help them overcome their challenges. The biggest barrier for young people is a sense of hopelessness--that there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

At the end of their meeting, Dobbins says she needs a temporary administrative assistant; before Rin Hover leaves, she sits down with a member of Dobbins' staff to interview for the position.

During the interview, Rin Hover talks about her computer skills and her work at Trinity College's technology center. She says she would also like to work as a youth counselor at Covenant House. The staff member explains that due to licensing requirements, the agency can only hire counselors with a bachelor's degree and at least one year's experience working with at-risk youth, or someone without a college degree but at least three years' experience working with at-risk youth. Rin Hover points out her many years in the foster care system, an asset she would bring to the job. The staff member moves on to the next question.

Later, Rin Hover confides to an observer that she doesn't feel she'll get the administrative assistant job and expresses frustration that most vacancies she is interested in require a bachelor's degree. But she says she won't give up, and goes on to interview at another youth advocacy organization that afternoon.

Stronger Bridges

Most states provide some transitional services to young people over 18 who age out of the foster care system, but the services vary widely. Even with the continuation of some services, many youth still face challenges transitioning to life outside the system. It's been 14 years since a national evaluation of youth transitioning from foster care, but individual state studies have revealed growing evidence of young people's struggles. Just this year, two substantial regional studies of foster care alumni were released, shedding even greater light on the conditions of youth formerly in care.

The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study, released last April by Casey Family Programs, Harvard Medical School, the Washington State Office of Children's Administration Research, and the Oregon Department of Human Services, found that more than 20% of foster care alumni were doing well. But most still faced major challenges in mental health, education, and employment. One-third of youth formerly in foster care had incomes at or below the poverty level, one-third had no health insurance, and nearly a quarter had experienced homelessness after leaving foster care. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder were twice as high for foster care alumni than for U.S. war veterans.

"We are not establishing a strong enough bridge from foster care to young adulthood," says Peter Pecora, the study's lead researcher. "We need to beOehelping youth who are going to be in care a year or more become better prepared emotionally and educationally to get and keep jobs that pay a living wage with health care benefits."

Similarly, the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, Chapin Hall's longitudinal study of youth leaving foster care and transitioning to adulthood in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, found that young people leaving foster care face "formidable challenges," often struggling to stay in school, find stable housing, support themselves financially, and secure medical services.

The Midwest study also found that remaining in care beyond age 18 increased the likelihood young adults would continue their education or be employed. Those who left foster care at 18 were nearly three times more likely than a national sample of their peers to be disconnected from work or school.

In recent years, states have given more funding and greater flexibility to support young people transitioning to independent living, thanks to the Foster Care Independence Act (FCIA) of 1999, which created the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. FCIA increased funding for federal independent-living services to $140 million anually and enabled states to help young adults 18-21 years old who have left foster care.

Easing Transitions for Future Generations

The Achieving Independence Center (AIC) is one program that has used Chafee funds and other funding to open a one-stop center to help Philadelphia youth, ages 16-24, successfully transition out of foster care. Philadelphia's Department of Human Services (DHS) partnered with the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation and the Philadelphia Youth Network to open AIC in December 2002. Approximately 1,250 youth have participated.

Director Evelyn Busby explains AIC is an expansion of a 90-day transitional program that had provided a few hours of lifeskills training for youth, four days a week after school. The Commissioner of Human Services decided that wasn't enough.

"[DHS] charged itself with expanding opportunities for youth transitioning out of care with the [rationale] that--for our own children or adopted children--we don't just give them some training and kick them out," Busby says. "In essence, the state has said to these youth, 'We are going to be your parents because, for whatever reason, your parents are unable to do it.'"

DHS social workers are required to inform youth transitioning out of care about AIC and make referrals. AIC's services are free to eligible youth, and the center operates flexible hours and is located near bus and subway lines. Youth enrolling at AIC to boost their job prospects find instruction on how to conduct a job search, prepare a resume, complete an employment application, and prepare for a job interview. Workshops and individual counseling on balancing work, family life, and education also are available.

AIC's euro-style cafe offers hands-on work experience serving the public. Youth work alongside food service employees and managers for eight weeks for $6.50 an hour to learn the ins and outs of the hospitality trade. AIC also collaborates with outside partners such as Goodwill to help place young people in jobs.

But employment services are just one aspect of AIC, Busby explains. Other services include instruction on conducting a housing search, planning and preparing meals, and handling finances, as well as computer classes, academic tutoring, and assistance with college preparation--many of the basics necessary to get a foothold in adulthood.

AIC's services aren't only free, young people can earn points redeemable for cash rewards up to $2,100. For example, they can earn points for perfect attendance, for landing a job, and for every month they remain at that job. "We want them to have funds and resources when they leave here," Busby   explains.

Further north, the New Jersey Youth Corps is also making strides to prepare foster care alumni for work and life in the real world. The program opened in 1984 to provide academic instruction and community service to high school dropouts. Last year, the program began specifically targeting youth ages 16-25 who were leaving or had left foster care. Chafee funding helps provide education, community service, and personal and career development.

Across 12 sites, New Jersey Youth Corps provides individual and career counseling; preparation for the GED; employability skills instruction, such as resume writing and interviewing techniques; and lifeskills instruction, including becoming an educated consumer and preventing unwanted pregnancies. Youth placed in jobs receive periodic follow-up counseling for their first 120 days on the job.

"There aren't a lot of programs that operate full-time, year-round that provide this comprehensive experience," says New Jersey Youth Corps State Director Lynn Logo-Keepers. "There are a lot of places where you can go and get GED instruction, for example, or basic skills instruction, or some vocational training, but they don't string them all together and keep the young person under their wing until they're ready to move on to a job or to college."

In the New Jersey Youth Corps, youth also receive at least 150 hours of community service experience, such as environmental restoration, human service projects, and housing rehabilitation--a critically important aspect to the program, Logo-Keepers explains. "It might take doing one or two projects, but usually once they start to see how much they can accomplish and the impact they can have on communities, it's so positive that their academics improve along with their increased interest in community service."

What has challenged New Jersey Youth Corps, Logo-Keepers says, is making the right connections among thousands of state agency personnel working with youth so that referrals are made on a local level to Youth Corps sites. "Even though we've been around over 21 years, you have to constantly tell people about what you do and who you are and make sure that information is out there."

Leaving Incarceration: Antoine's Story

With a criminal record and only six months work experience at Burger King under his belt, it took Antoine Bennett a long time to find steady work after being released from the Maryland Penitentiary in 1993. Bennett was incarcerated for three years, beginning at age 18, and on the snowy February day of his release, he headed straight for the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, visiting and reuniting with family members.

The honeymoon didn't last long. Bennett realized he couldn't live forever off the generosity of his aunt, who took him in after his release. "I remember coming out with no ID and no money in my pocket, and for a lot of us that's what led us into the penitentiary in the first place."

Bennett wasn't sure where to begin looking for work, but he was certain of one thing: "One promise I made to myself was that I was not going to be as stupid going out as I was going in."

Raised by his grandmother, Bennett grew up in one of Baltimore's most economically depressed neighborhoods. As a teenager, he admits he got into trouble and had a bad temper. He stole from the local convenience store, stayed out late, and was suspended from school. Shortly after he turned 18, he shot a man; the victim survived, but Bennett was convicted of attempted first-degree murder. Today, Bennett says he fully regrets his actions and is thankful the man survived.

For the first year after his release, Bennett's employment was sporadic. At times, he was unemployed for months on end. He worked an assortment of janitorial, construction, and restaurant jobs but would end up being laid off or, once employers learned of his criminal record, let go. "I felt it was important to be honest about my background, but it did me in."

The turning point came when he found a flyer for the Economic Development Employment Network (EDEN), a free, nonprofit jobs placement program for the residents of Bennett's neighborhood. From the beginning, Bennett was impressed. "They didn't treat me like an ex-offender coming through the door. They always referred to me as a 'job seeker.'"

For the first time, Bennett learned how to write a resume and cover letter, and EDEN staff drilled him in mock interviews, asking him straightforward questions about his background and prior work experience and suggesting appropriate responses. Through EDEN, he landed a spot with YouthBuild USA, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor in which unemployed, low-income young people 16-24, including ex-offenders, can learn job skills building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people.

In the program for 18 months, Bennett discovered YouthBuild wasn't just about building houses. Participants spend half their day working and the other half in the classroom earning high school diplomas or GEDs and taking workshops on career and leadership development. They receive stipends and personal counseling. Program graduates receive help finding jobs or applying for school and are encouraged to participate in alumni groups.

The community service piece has been key to YouthBuild's success, says founder and President Dorothy Stoneman. "Building housing for people in the neighborhood is an enormous sense of pride for young people who've been disrespected and marginalized, and now the community looks at them as heroes because they see them in their hard hats building housing."

YouthBuild has helped 47,000 teenagers and young adults build some 13,000 units of affordable housing in 44 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. About 15% of participants have felony convictions.

The criteria for participation, according to Stoneman, are only "that you show seriousness of purpose and motivation, and that you are not addicted to hard drugs. That's what we tell them, and they line up at the doors. We tell them a criminal record is irrelevant. What matters is your future."

Bennett's success in YouthBuild launched him on a career path right back to where he started, at EDEN Jobs. Since 1996, he has played many roles at the organization, including receptionist, security guard, financial counselor, and jobs counselor. Today, at 34, he's the Director of EDEN Jobs and serves on YouthBuild USA's Board of Directors.

"Antoine has always been a stunningly committed man, and I'm not surprised at his success," Stoneman says, "but no one should think it was easy for him. Young people need a long period of support if they don't happen to have the resources in their own family to get that kind of support. The programs they are connected with need to pay attention and provide care and interest in doors opening for them for a long time."

Aiding Reentry

Many young, motivated ex-offenders line up at YouthBuild's doors looking for work, but some programs don't wait for the young people to come calling. Youth Opportunity Boston, or YO Boston, visits young people while they're still incarcerated to help them prepare for and think about employment once they're released.

"We like to get in and start at least three to four months before they get out so we can create that continuum, so they aren't stepping into our agency cold," says Kim Pelletreau, YO Boston's Law Enforcement Manager. "If you can sit down with a kid and punch out a resume for someone who doesn't have any experience, and they can walk out with that in handOethat is immediate gratification and boosts their self-esteem."

Started in 2001, YO Boston serves youth 14-21 who have been arrested, incarcerated, or on juvenile probation within the past two years. The program also serves the siblings of court-involved youth, young people whose parents are incarcerated, and those who have GEDs or high school diplomas but no plans for the future. The program offers transitional employment services, workshops on topics such as workplace etiquette and decision-making, education classes, technology training, and community service activities. All services are free.

YO Boston's employment program is aligned on four levels, beginning with community service learning and work readiness, and ending with intensive career planning. "It's a clear picture for young people," says YO Boston Career Development Manager Maddrey Goode. "There are four different levels to this thing they call work. The youth have to master one before they can go on to the next."

To help youth land jobs, YO Boston has partnered with various businesses, including Citizen's Bank, UPS, and Wendy's. The staff is continually working on building more partnerships with the private sector and community-based organizations, and periodically invites them to participate in activities at YO Boston, including career fairs.

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and operated by the Boston Mayor's Office of Jobs and Community Service, in partnership with the Boston Police Department, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, and the Suffolk County House of Corrections.

Speaking from Experience

On the four corners of the block where EDEN Jobs is located in West Baltimore sits a liquor store; the gutted shell of an abandoned row home; a crumbling, vacant car wash parking lot; and the brightly painted gate and signs for EDEN Jobs and a Habitat for Humanity housing program. If Antoine Bennett hadn't ended up on the corner where EDEN Jobs is located, he says he'd be "dead or in jail."

After living through the difficult transition from jail to work, and now working day to day with young people in the same predicament, he says one of the best things public and private agencies can do is come to the table together to coordinate services and make such transitions easier. "It takes a village to raise an ex-offender," he says. For example, many young ex-offenders leave incarceration with no identification and limited knowledge about how to obtain it--a problem the Motor Vehicle Administration could help solve together with the jail systems, Bennett says.

As for Rin Hover's advice for those helping youth transition from foster care, she says, "Once a young person leaves foster care, we really have no connections to anyone. Because that connection is not there, it's important that the skills you need in the workforce are taught to you."

Reflecting on her own search, she says she has learned many things along the way, including the need to research companies before applying and interviewing, regularly updating a resume, and sending thank-you letters after interviews. Here and there, she picked up other skills, such as learning how to write a resume from a parks and recreation program and learning about proper attire through a Dress for Success program.

Although Covenant House did not hire her as an administrative assistant, she continued to work temporary positions while looking for a full-time job. A window finally opened when CWLA hired her as Youth Leadership Coordinator, working with the National Foster Youth Advisory Council and providing training and technical assistance around youth engagement and positive youth development.

Daniella offers advice to other young job seekers like her who may feel discouraged with the obstacles they encounter looking for work: "Try to remain encouraged, remember why you're trying to do this, and understand this is temporary."

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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