Good morning Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Mark Kroner and I am the Director of Self-Sufficiency Services for Lighthouse Youth Services-a private nonprofit organization based in Southern Ohio since 1969. Lighthouse Youth Services is one of over 450 member agencies of the Child Welfare League of America that provides independent living services to youths leaving foster care.
I have been involved in training and consulting with dozens of organizations nationwide that are trying to develop independent living programs. Since 1986 I have been running our agency’s independent living program in Cincinnati. Over that period of time we have assisted nearly 700 youths who are trying to make the difficult transition from foster care to living on their own.
We are greatly encouraged by this Subcommittee’s interest in providing supports to youths exiting foster care. The Foster Care Independence Act will provide much needed support and flexibility to the states so they can provide better services to kids making the transition from foster care to independence.
Many of the youths in our program at Lighthouse have mothers who are mentally ill or chemically dependent, or have fathers who are in jail or nowhere to be found. These youth were abused, neglected or abandoned¾to the point where caring professionals realized that they would never be able to count on living with their families of origin for any extended period of time. We have to focus our energies on helping youth build workable futures for themselves.
Many of the young people in our county entered the child welfare system for the first time when they were 16 or 17-often too late to find an adoptive family or a foster home willing to take in an older teenager with a tattoo and an attitude. Many of the teens referred to us made it clear that they would run from a foster or group home if placed there. They were used to being on their own and fending for themselves. They just wanted a place free from the abuse and chaos of their natural family households.
Up to a third of the teens we serve have a diagnosable developmental disability. Many of these youth are functioning at a 12-14 year old level at age 18. They are usually several years behind in school and are not ready to graduate from high school until they are 20 or 21. They will in no way be able to become totally self-sufficient at age 18.
Permanency for many of these youths means learning to live independently. Even if they do spend time with family members, their chances for success are improved if they learn to count on themselves to solve their daily problems¾and have the knowledge, experience and skills to do so.
These foster youth receive a “double-whammy” when they reach 18. First, they learn emphatically that their families of origin are not going to help them. Then, they learn that the services and supports they had received in the child welfare system abruptly end.
The Foster Care Independence Act recognizes that these youths need additional help. This legislation provides new and expanded opportunities for us to help these young people. The services supported by this bill would greatly increase the chances of success for these youths who need to venture out on their own¾ many years ahead of their peers who often receive full or partial support from their families until their mid twenties. The services offered under the existing Title IV-E Independent Living program have begun to address the needs of youth leaving foster care, but we need to do much more.
The Foster Care Independence Act addresses three important areas that will greatly increase the chances of success for youth aging out of foster care:
- Helping young people acquire the skills and knowledge they need to become self-sufficient.
- Providing health care coverage for youth up to age 21.
- Increasing housing options for youths who have left foster care.
I know you have heard testimony from many others that will give you a clear national picture of the situation and relevant statistics. I would like to give you more of a perspective from the front line and share some of our agency’s observations.
We learned early on that the best preparation for independence that the youth in our program could have was the direct experience of living on their own while still in the custody of caring adults. We learned that independent living services without housing was like driver’s training without the car. Life skills training without the actual experience of living alone and using those life skills was not enough-young people need real-life practice in order to really learn.
At Lighthouse Youth Services, we started placing foster youth in their own apartments a number of years ago so that they could have the experience of learning to live on their own. Despite a lot of gray hairs and after-hours pages, we saw that these kids were indeed learning, and could be “constructively coerced” into taking on adult responsibilities at 18 or 17. We even have had a number of young people live on their own and do very well at age 16.
Using Title IV-E Independent Living funds, we began a countywide self-sufficiency training program for all youth in out-of-home care. This training has made a noticeable difference in the ability of youth referred to our apartment program to make a quick adjustment to living independently. Allowing youth to participate in this program beginning at age 14, which would be made possible by the Foster Care Independence Act, would make our efforts even more effective.
The teens coming through our program taught us what they needed to do and learn in order to become more self-sufficient. Sometimes it meant letting them makes dozens of crazy mistakes and foolish choices:
- going to school without lunch because they spent their food allowance on a new nose ring.
- getting evicted because they couldn’t control their noisy friends.
- losing a job after forgetting to budget for bus fare.
- having their hard earned savings stolen by a visiting mother, addicted to crack.
- receiving a $200 phone bill after allowing “friends” free use of the apartment phone.
- standing out in the snow at 2 a.m. wondering where the key went.
But our teens made these mistakes while they were still in our care-and have our support in going over the events leading up to the mistake, the consequences, and the “what to do next time” speech.
Over the last decade Lighthouse Youth Services has created a continuum of housing options that include:
- individual scattered-site apartments;
- small shared-homes that house 3-4 youth and a live-in adult;
- host homes in which a youth shares a house with one or two adults;
- access to a boarding home for females in the city center;
- roommate situations; and
- temporary shelters for youth that can’t stay in their own apartments.
All states need support and flexibility to establish similar continuums, and to extend services to youth leaving foster care. The Foster Care Independence Act would allow states to use up to 30% of Title IV-E Independent Living funds, which are increased in the Foster Care Independence Act, to be used for the room and board costs for youths ages 18-21. These additional funds will foster the creativity that states need to develop their own housing continuum and related services for these very vulnerable youth.
Our state has amended licensing rules to make the less-restrictive and semi-supervised living arrangements possible. We have found many landlords who are willing to give our kids a chance. (They tell us our kids are no worse than the general public.) We have a local system that focuses more on what youth need rather than on all of the things that could possibly go wrong. We expect our youth to make a lot of mistakes until they get it right. What they really need is help acquiring the skills they need to become self-sufficient.
In short, what we are trying to do in Cincinnati is to create a system that somewhat resembles the caring but challenging atmosphere that healthy families try to create when helping their young adults leave home. Our model might not work in some of the larger cities where rents are sky high or apartments are scarce¾but some version of it could.
We are fortunate in Cincinnati. We have one of those rare situations in which the public children’s service staff, juvenile court personnel, and private providers have reached a general agreement as to what services need to be provided. We see a lot of successes and even some miracles from time-to-time. But we also see a larger group of youth leaving us with a long way to go before they are totally self-sufficient. We know we’re not yet doing enough.
Next month, 18 youths in our Independent Living Program will graduate from high school or receive their GEDs. It would be a real shame to hand them their diplomas and then tell them they are totally on their own.
Extending services and housing assistance to youth until 21 is a no-brainer. It is obviously what is needed to best help all foster youth, and especially those with developmental disabilities.
In summary, it is obvious that the foster youths in our country need what all teens need:
- time to grow up;
- ongoing support from caring adults;
- financial support for a reasonable period of time;
- health insurance until they can afford it;
- chances to learn from mistakes and direct experience;
- an affordable place to live when cut off from adult support; and
- second chances when they fail.
The Foster Care Independence Act addresses all of these needs. With this legislation we have a wonderful opportunity to make a significant positive difference in the lives of one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our country. We can never do enough for our own kids or for the kids raised in the child welfare system but we can do better than what we are doing now. The existing Independent Living program has done a lot to help prepare youths leaving foster care for adulthood. Since that program began operating in 1987, the number of teens in the foster care has increased dramatically. We also now recognize that these youths leaving care need a broader range of supports and serivces than are available within existing programs.
There is no magic in what we are doing in Cincinnati or in what this bill proposes¾only the common sense that says we can’t expect foster youth to do what any normal youth couldn’t do without years of sustained help and financial support. Our foster youth need the additional supports provided by the Foster Care Independence Act.
For advocacy/policy information, contact Liz Meitner, CWLA Government Affairs Department at (202) 942-0257 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.