Eighteen-year-old Chantilly, who spent 13 years in foster care in more than 20 homes, knows exactly what she wants for her baby daughter, Chantasia: "One place to live, where all her stuff is, and she doesn't have to worry about whether she's going to be there tomorrow." When Chantasia was born last year, Chantilly's foster agency offered her a place in a group home for young moms and their babies. If she'd taken it, she would have been entitled to three more years of guaranteed support and shelter, a stipend for the baby and, most likely, money for college. But Chantilly was tired of living on other people's terms. She signed herself out of foster care two weeks after her 18th birthday. "You become a mother," she says, "and you want your own."
Her own, however, has been exceedingly hard to get.
After six months of sleeping on couches and living room floors, Chantilly and Chantasia ran out of friends and ended up in a city homeless shelter. Since then, Chantilly's done everything she could think of to get herself and her daughter out of homelessness: She earned her GED, found a paid internship, applied to a nursing program, and with the help of a housing specialist at the shelter got a voucher from the city that will pay rent on her own apartment for two years.
The problem is, after six months of calling real estate agents, viewing apartments and filling out applications, she can't find a landlord who's willing to take her. "They see you're young and you have a baby and you're working at an internship," she says. "They turn you down quick."
No one keeps track of how many young women in the foster care system get pregnant or have babies, though it's clear from scattered studies that the numbers are high. When researchers at the University of Chicago surveyed current and former foster youth in three Midwest states, they found that more than half were living with young children by age 21. The National Casey Alumni Study,which followed foster care alumni from 23 communities around the country, found the birth rate for girls in care was more than double the rate of their peers outside the system.
As with any adolescent who becomes an adult in foster care, the goal of the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) is to get young moms ready to hold down jobs, pay their own bills and live independent, self-sufficient lives, starting with a safe and stable place to live. By law, foster agencies are responsible for making sure their charges have a secure housing plan before discharging them from care.
But the reality is that pregnant and parenting foster youth age out into a tough city and even tougher odds. They live with the standard list of obstacles that face kids who become adults in the system, chronically low education rates, poor employment histories, broken connections and relationships, added to the challenges of raising a child under what can be profoundly daunting conditions: young, nearly always single and, often, very much alone in the world.
Twice in the last decade, ACS put numbers to a problem that advocates who work with young moms in the community have long suspected: At an alarming rate, and especially for women with children, housing plans fall apart.
In 2001, ACS and the city's Department of Homeless Services turned over their databases to a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania named Dennis Culhane. Culling through 15 years of records, Culhane was able to track a steady march of kids from foster care to adult homeless shelters: Of nearly 12,000 youth who left care at age 16 or older between 1988 and 1992, an average of 300 per year, or about 12 percent, ended up in city shelters in less than three years. Of all the factors that increased a former foster youth's likelihood of becoming homeless, being a mother was far and away the most predictive: women were two and a half times more likely to end up in shelters than men, and 94 percent of them had children.
Culhane's cohort aged out in the early 1990s. In the nearly two decades that followed, the world of child welfare invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve services for adolescents in care. Agencies got funding for education and housing specialists, whose job it was to help teens prepare for successful adulthood, and some states extended the guarantee of shelter and support to age 21.
By any logic, by the time Culhane's study was published in 2004, outcomes for youth aging out of care should already have begun to look much better. But this is where the story takes a twist: In the fall of 2008, ACS and the Department of Homeless Services matched up their data once again, this time tracing just a two-year trajectory after young people left care. Despite more than a decade of institutional and philanthropic effort, the percentage of former foster children entering homeless shelters in New York City has gone up to about 15 percent. And once again, it was young mothers who were most likely to end up in need of shelter: Of the 225 aged-out foster youth who walked through homeless shelter doors, more than half were women with children.
A few weeks short of her 20th birthday, Jill sits on one end of a sofa in a sunny east-Bronx living room, attempting to dissuade her 13-month-old daughter, Sarah, from taking a nosedive to the floor. A squirmy bundle of pink sneakers and ponytails, Sarah pauses to contemplate the vagaries of physics and maternal wisdom, chewing reflectively on the corner of her mother's cell phone.
Above their heads, an oversized bulletin board carries the exuberant headline: "Housing and Employment Opportunities!!!" Other than a brief list of temp agencies, it's empty, an expansive, corkboard testament to a brutal economy, a city in perpetual housing crisis and life options that have become increasingly scarce.
Jill and Sarah are two of the six current occupants of a mother-child transitional-living residence run by Inwood House, the agency that also operates the city's largest foster care program for young women with babies. The Bronx site isn't part of the foster care system: it's funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development rather than ACS, and it's intended to serve homeless and runaway girls between the ages of 16 and 21. But, like many of the city's programs for homeless youth, it often ends up housing kids who have left the child welfare system and run out of places to go.
Jill's mom abandoned her when she was a year old. She was adopted soon after by a woman who beat her and a man who she says raped her, the first time, when she was 11. She went to ACS for help when she was 15, and spent most of the following three years chasing freedom, running away from group homes and sleeping in stairwells, trains and the beds of men she called "uncles."
By the time she got pregnant, at 17, she was living with a boyfriend who, she says, "didn't kill me because he didn't want to go to jail , he loved to beat women too much." Her daughter's father was 30 years old, already living with one of the mothers of his seven other kids.
Keneca Boyce, Inwood House's director of program development, describes pregnancy as the most potentially transformative moment of many young women's lives , a juncture when girls who've lived with extreme levels of chaos can become willing to accept help and seek stability. To Jill, Sarah's imminent arrival meant there'd finally be something in her world that lasted. "I would always worry about what would happen if people were taken away from me," she says. "This person could move away or leave or whatever. My daughter is somebody who's mine."
Seeking shelter and a measure of permanence, she went back to her foster agency. But when a caseworker mentioned the possibility of reuniting with her adoptive family, she panicked. Still 17, she got a lawyer through a social service agency, emancipated herself from the system and went into a youth homeless shelter, which referred her to Inwood House. Under its contract, Inwood House was able to take her in for 18 months. Seventeen of them are over. In four weeks, she and Sarah will be back on their own.
And that's where Jill's story collides with New York City housing policy and a two-year-and-counting budget crisis. In her time at Inwood House, she's earned her GED, completed two employment certification programs and applied for 15 jobs, from Toys'R'Us to high school lunch rooms. But she hasn't been called in to interview for any of them. The chances that she'll be ready to pay rent on an apartment in less than a month are slim.
Last year, the most likely long-term housing option for a young mom leaving a transitional residence would have been Section 8, a federally funded program that provides rental vouchers to poor families across the country. As parents and as aged-out foster youth, young women with babies had priority for these vouchers, and landlords knew they could count on subsidies that would last indefinitely.
But in December 2009, the New York City Housing Authority placed a freeze on the program, announcing that it would no longer fund new vouchers and had to revoke about 2,600 subsidies that had already been distributed. In the middle of a job-market meltdown, poor families lost a major source of housing assistance, creating a catastrophic domino effect for New Yorkers on the verge of, or trying to escape, homelessness. Pregnant and parenting foster youth were diverted to waiting lists for public housing units or supportive housing programs that were already years long. Eventually the 2,600 vouchers were restored with city funding. But for now, the program is accepting no new applications.
Without the safety net of Section 8, the best hope left for many young mothers aging out of foster care is the city's Advantage program, a two-year rental voucher designed by the Bloomberg administration with the idea that shorterterm subsidies would motivate homeless families to become independent faster.
But the Advantage program has some major drawbacks for young, aged-out moms. First, as Roxanne Mendoza, a residence manager at Inwood House, points out, two years is not a long time to become competitive on the New York City housing market, particularly for young single mothers. Second, a voucher isn't an apartment: In a market as tight as the city's, landlords have little incentive to rent to young mothers with sparse employment records and even sparser rental histories, especially when they know their subsidies will run out two years later. Mendoza says she's seen young moms' vouchers expire before they were able to find a place to use them.
The third pitfall of the Advantage program reflects a fundamental Catch-22 of subsidized housing in New York City: It's a lot easier and faster to get if you're already homeless.Coming from a transitional housing program like Inwood House , or, for that matter, from an ACS-sponsored foster home , it can take a young mother six months to a year to get an Advantage voucher, assuming she has the organizational capacity and fortitude to show up for a series of appointments, armed with dockets of required paperwork and the ability to show that she's maintaining an income.
Coming from a shelter, the process takes weeks, not months , a disparity that creates a very real incentive for young mothers to leave foster homes or other, more stable housing programs to try their luck through the shelter system.
Once they're in shelter, they're guaranteed a roof over their heads, but they're also guaranteed yet another episode of transience for themselves and for their children. "We look for any other option" for young mothers leaving Inwood House, says Roxanne Mendoza, "even if it means finding a long-lost relative who's out of state."
And yet, she says, since the Section 8 freeze, about 40 percent of young moms who've left the transitional program have gone directly into homeless shelters. For now, it's the best option Mendoza sees for Jill and Sarah, since it means at least they won't be at the mercy of whoever's willing to put them up for the night. But for Jill, the promise of temporary shelter isn't enough incentive to subject herself to the authority of yet another public institution. "I heard it was disgusting," she says. "Roach infested, rat infested."
Without a better option, her plan is to move in, for at least a while, with Sarah's father, his girlfriend and their kids. "At least that's some kind of independence," she says.
The effort to provide services to adolescents in the child welfare system is, in many ways, a project of bringing order to chaos. In a system that's predicated on disruption, occupied by children whose lives have been defined by transience, how do foster care providers give young people the stability and ongoing guidance they need to build skills, make long-term plans, and then stick with them in the face of frustration and disappointment?
Since the late 1990s, much of the federal funding for teen services has been tied to the provision of instruction in Independent Living Skills. Foster youth receive a stipend for attending group classes on topics such as r√©sum√© writing and money management.
Although the federal funding for Independent Living Skills continues, the model has been largely discredited. A study at the University of Oklahoma found no correlation between instruction in Independent Living Skills and improved life outcomes. In two others studies, researchers at the University of Chicago and the Pew Charitable Trusts tracked the fates of large numbers of aged-out foster youth, with results that were overwhelmingly dismal.
Through the early 2000s, those researchers collaborated with some of the country's biggest philanthropic organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to push child welfare agencies toward what they defined as new best practices for working with adolescents: First, get teens out of congregate care facilities and into home settings, where they have a better chance at connection and stability. When that's not possible, encourage young people to build longterm relationships with stable adults. And most importantly, involve foster youth in intensive, individualized planning for self-sufficient futures.
In 2006, ACS adopted those standards of care as the basis of its plan to overhaul services for teens in the city's foster agencies. Under its new strategy called "Preparing Youth for Adulthood," the department intended to redirect $19 million, as well as a cadre of staff, to help agencies engage in one-on-one life planning with adolescents in their care, starting as early as a foster youth's 14th birthday. Ideally, then, young people would be armed with concrete plans for education, employment and stable housing well before they turned 18. As long as they stayed in the system through age 21, they'd have an opportunity to do a trial discharge, testing out their plans before losing the security of state-guaranteed support.
The reality has been much more complicated. Before long ACS was hit by budget cuts and laid off much of the staff of its Office of Youth Development, precisely the people who had been designated to support foster agencies in their work with adolescents. ACS says that the services for teens have not been scaled back but redistributed across the department. But advocates argue that without a central office dedicated to provide these services, foster agencies have a more difficult time planning effectively for the youth in their care, particularly because of frequent staff changes at foster agencies. "There's a high rate of turnover, so knowledge about getting applications completed in a timely and complete manner isn't retained," says Theresa Moser, an attorney with the Juvenile Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. "ACS can do a lot on a system level, but so much boils down to individual case workers."
Built-in disruptions are even more frequent for young women who have babies. When a girl gets pregnant, if she's already living with a foster family, the default option is supposed to be for her to stay there. In reality, however, many foster parents are reluctant or ill-equipped to provide a home for two generations of children, and very few of the city's foster agencies provide special training to encourage or support them to do so. The result is that young women are often transferred to a maternity residence , essentially, a pit stop for pregnant girls. Maternity residences aren't licensed to house babies, so new mothers must move to yet another placement after giving birth, either with a new foster family or in a mother-baby group home. "They're already going through this incredible transition of becoming parents," says Moser. "Then everything else changes: who they live with, where they live, who they're working with. It's very traumatic."
If a young woman's agency hasn't successfully made a plan for where she'll live after giving birth, new mothers can be separated from their babies as soon as they come out of the hospital, "sometimes for days; sometimes for weeks," says Moser.
With each transition, the logistical and emotional challenges of preparing for the future become more acute. Repeated moves interrupt what may already be a struggle to stay in school and threaten whatever community connections a young mother may have , just when she's likely to need them most. Without a long-term address, and the sense of stability that goes with it, it's profoundly difficult to make plans and build sustainable relationships, much less apply for jobs or hunt for child care. For young people without a safety net, failure to make and execute plans can spiral into disaster, adding to the cumulative disruption that has likely characterized a young mother's life, and which threatens to tumble down through the next generation.
At the respective ages of 18 and 19, Halimah and Cherry are split by the particular ambivalence that defines adolescence: They want to be adults, with the control over circumstances that adulthood entails. And they want to be children, with someone to turn to when things go wrong. Because they're in foster care, the decision they face is both literal and final. They can stay in the system until their 21st birthdays and be provided with shelter, basic necessities and√¢‚Ç¨, in theory at least√¢‚Ç¨, help with securing long-term housing before they leave. Or they can sign a piece of paper, walk out the door and be independent ... and alone.
In 10 years of foster care, Cherry, a chronic runaway, has lived in (and run away from) more than 40 placements, including three mother-baby group homes since her son, Eric, was born a year ago. Halimah's parents left her at a youth homeless shelter when she was pregnant with her now-2-year-old boy. A few months ago, both young women ended up in a GED and career preparation program at The Door, a multiservice center for low-income youth, where they became best friends.
Of the many things they agree upon, one of the most urgent is that they want out of the system right now.They're tired of case workers and planning meetings, they're tired of group-home rules and punishments, and they're tired of living under the care of people who, as Cherry puts it, "see you as a paycheck."
They're equally clear on where they imagine themselves 10 years into the future: Cherry wants to be starring in movies or walking down runways; Halimah wants to be a pediatrician. It's what comes in between that's a little fuzzy.
Even with the best advanced planning, for most young mothers aging out of the system, survival depends on the ability to navigate a labyrinth of public systems and manage countless slippery details and moving parts. To get assisted housing, they need to maintain an income. Public assistance may hold them over for a while, but it won't be long before they need a job, which means they have to get child care. They're eligible for childcare vouchers from the city, but spots are hard to find and far from ideal.
Add those challenges to the daily grind of low-income single parenting: stretching a budget to cover food, diapers and baby clothes that get grown out of as soon as they're bought; sleepless nights, sick kids, laundry, dishes, shopping, cooking, and on and on.
"I'm a single mother living in New York as an adult, and I get totally overwhelmed," says Oma Holloway, the director of career services at The Door. "I just can't imagine how alone you feel when you're 16, 17, 18 and you have nobody."
Like many providers who work with foster youth on the cusp of aging out, Holloway often finds herself trying to convince young moms to stay in the system just a little longer to get just a bit more stability before they leave the safety of state care. It's an argument that can be hard to sell to young women who've spent their lives worrying about how to survive the next day, not the next year or decade. "They have grandiose dreams of what their apartments and jobs will look like when they're on their own," she says. "They're at a stage of development where it's a real challenge to convince them, a year or two years before the time comes, that you have to map this stuff out now: child care, a job, a housing plan."
For Cherry and Halimah, the decision to stay or go is fraught with anxiety, made more intense by the fact that they both know, intimately, what happens when a mother can't provide a safe and stable home for her child. "I heard too many stories," says Halimah, "where girls lost their apartment and then they lost their kids."
And that, of course, is the monster under the bed, for young mothers in foster care and for the providers who work with them: With each layer of instability, each life plan that falls apart, the odds increase that another generation will cycle through the system.
"Some young women do make it," says Holloway. "They're really driven, and they're able to do what they need to do, get help with their kids, go to college. Those that have strong people working with them and those that have the natural ability to rise above those are the ones that make it. Does everybody have that?"