Recommendations and Solutions

Young people we interviewed for this report have high aspirations. Some will go on to college and find success despite difficulties in their lives. But today, hundreds of young New Yorkers leave foster care each year and end up in homeless shelters, often with their own small children in tow. Many more spend years struggling to find an adequate income and a stable home. Highly respected research studies of former foster children in their late teens and early 20s have found shockingly low employment rates and incomes, and few of these young people attending college or vocational programs. In one recent study, more than half the young women were mothers by age 19. Much has been tried in the past to reform the way government and nonprofit agencies work with teens to prepare for life beyond foster care, yet resources and commitment have invariably faded with time. This must change or the results will not. The recommendations that follow, proposed by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board, describe much-needed steps the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), foster care agencies and others should take to help young people transition to a more stable adulthood.

Foster care agencies must base their work with teens on the principle that preparing for adult hood is fundamental to adolescent development.

ACS should set firm standards and sanctions to ensure foster care agencies provide older teens with life coaching, real-life experiential learning about educational employment opportunities, skills training and career development, and frequent one-on-one planning sessions about life after foster care. One model that has shown great promise in initial evaluations is The Academy, a project of F.E.G.S Health & Human Services System, which has worked with about 400 young people in foster care since 2007. Some agencies also provide foundation-funded coaching, counseling and other services, but most young people aging out of foster care do not have these opportunities.

Counseling must include well-stated, carefully reinforced information about the right to stay in foster care until age 21, and why remaining in care can bring material benefits. Most important, foster parents for teens must be fully trained and supported in their work with older teens to reinforce the fact that they are responsible for helping young people prepare for the future.

ACS must create enforceable standards and adequate funding for foster care agencies to ensure that young people are connected to meaningful assistance even after leaving foster care.

ACS regulations are vague about what's required in terms of supporting young people after they leave the system. Foster care agencies must "provide supervision" after discharge for some young people until age 21, but there are neither clear guidelines about what supervision is required nor money allocated for it. Some agencies provide minimal supervision, such as infrequent telephones calls, while others make significant investments in family support and counseling. ACS should require that agencies take steps to ensure that young people have adults to turn to who will help or intervene in situations that can derail the transition from foster care, whether it's a conflict with a parent or grandmother about life at home; a pregnancy or child-care issue; a lack of money to help pay a share of the rent, or some other escalating crisis. ACS should establish enforceable standards for at least six months to one year of family or individual assistance, including for young adults moving home with parents or siblings, as well as educational and vocational advocacy.

The mayor, City Council and ACS should provide funds to hire young people as peer advocates in nonprofit agencies and government.

Current and former foster youth who have found success or become leaders in their communities, schools or families should be seen as a resource for mentoring, policymaking, and peer support. Training and employment models for youth leadership and peer advocacy should be adapted to foster care programs. New peer networks, mentoring and policymaking roles for young people who are succeeding, despite the hurdles, will cultivate invaluable first-hand knowledge for everyone in the system, teens and adults alike. With more than 1,100 young people 18 and older leaving foster care each year, the potential for ongoing, organized participation is large and barely tapped.

ACS and foster care agencies should put far more resources into strengthening families , including families to which young adults will likely return.

Research shows that the majority of young people aging out of foster care maintain contact with their families. If their parents and siblings are able to provide a place to live, young people with few financial resources will go home. But when an older child has been in foster care for years, his or her family has likely been abandoned by the system without any support and may have few resources to share. Attention must be paid to strengthening these families while the opportunity exists.

Foster care agencies must be accountable for helping young people aging out of care forge strong relationships with adults who can provide meaningful help and emotional support. Some young people leaving care reconnect with parents and relatives. Others have strong friends, teachers, mentors or former foster parents who carry them through. Nonetheless, many report a high degree of isolation and lack of emotional support to help them deal with economic and social stress. City government policy requires that foster care agencies and ACS help every young person 17 years old or older leaving foster care to identify adults "within the youth's life who will offer the emotional and social support needed to sustain discharge from foster care." Agencies and ACS need to identify these supportive adults and, if necessary, provide them with meaningful resources. This includes, for parents, eliminating barriers imposed by prior terminations of parental rights. There should be sanctions for poorly performing agencies.

ACS and its foster care agencies should provide comprehensive sex education and family planning services to teens in their care.

We wrote in these pages eight years ago: "All teens in foster care must be assured ready access to information on birth control and sexuality, including abortion. ACS needs to establish more specific guidelines for all agencies, including those that are religiously affiliated, and then monitor compliance and sanction inadequate performance." Today, all agencies are required to tell teens where to get birth control. But simply referring a young person to a clinic isn't adequate: Many clinics have no special capacity to work with teenagers, much less foster teens who are far more likely than their peers to become parents at an early age. Some agencies have formed partnerships with outside organizations, including foster care agencies such as Inwood House that have formidable expertise in this area, to provide honest, accurate family planning services, education and advice. But our earlier recommendation remains largely unrealized. ACS should require foster care agencies to implement a measurable family planning program for young men and women, and it must include information on birth control, sexuality and abortion. All foster care agencies, regardless of their religious affiliations and beliefs, must be held to these standards.

ACS should take steps to stabilize housing for young women before and after childbirth.

In 2011, ACS intends to eliminate 100 congregate care beds for young women who are pregnant or parenting. Unfortunately, a large percentage of foster families are unable or unwilling to house young women with babies or toddlers. Pregnant girls often end up in maternity residences with a plan to move into mother-child group homes after their babies are born. These programs are unable to reserve spots for young women who have not given birth, so young mothers-to-be often have no idea where they will live once their babies are born. If a placement cannot be found , a process that frequently happens while a young woman is in labor , new mothers may be forced to live separately from their babies for a period of days or weeks. As ACS initiates a new 'blended' licensing model for programs that work with pregnant and parenting young women, under which maternity residences will be able to house babies as well as pregnant girls, it must ensure that agencies are able to provide continuous care for young women before and after childbirth, minimizing disruptions for young mothers during an already chaotic time of life.

ACS should place young mothers in the same home as their babies.

When child protective services removes a baby from a young mother in foster care as a result of alleged neglectful parenting, ACS should make every effort to place the young mother and baby together with a foster parent who is specifically trained and supported to work with young parents. These teenagers should have the opportunity to continue bonding with their children and to learn essential parenting skills in a safe and supported environment.

Young mothers often say that they are threatened with neglect reports for violating rules that do not directly endanger the well-being of their babies, such as breaking curfews or missing appointments. When they face what they perceive to be a hostile environment, they are more likely to leave the foster care system, missing opportunities for stable housing and employment plans, and increasing the likelihood that they and their children will end up homeless. ACS and its contract agencies should also encourage young fathers to be part of their babies' lives. At group homes in particular, a father's visit should not depend on a young mom's good behavior.

Agencies and ACS should make school attendance and graduation a top priority for teens in foster care , including teen parents.

The hurdles facing teen mothers in foster care are huge. But adults don't help when they routinely schedule health care and other appointments during the day, when these young women could be in school. Caseworkers, group home staff and foster parents often assume they will at best complete a GED. This assumption must be turned on its head. Young people's future economic independence depends on meaningful preparation either in vocational school or higher education, and this must be among the city's objectives for every teen in foster care. The low expectations of adults in young peoples' lives can be self-fulfilling.

The city should restore the Supported Independent Living Program (SILP) and create more supportive housing for young adults and young parents leaving care.

Young adults need a chance to practice living independently before they are completely on their own. Experts say that young adults should have the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes as they become independent. The SILP program provided 125 young adults in foster care this opportunity, but ACS has shut it down. We urge ACS to keep SILP in operation, or, at the very least, convert its apartments into supportive housing for young adults leaving foster care.

Young adults can participate in NY/NY III supported housing program only after they have left foster care or are on a six-month trial discharge. If they are evicted for tenant violations or failing to pay rent, they may well become homeless. Instead, if young adults could move into these apartments before they age out of care, they would have the chance to practice being independent while a safety net remains in place, along with access to clinical services.

The state Office of Mental Health must create better options for young adults with mental health challenges.

Providers of supportive housing say they are sometimes overwhelmed by the scope and intensity of the mental health issues facing young people in their apartments and buildings. Learning groups for provider agency front-line staff and administrators have helped them share information and best practices and brainstorm solutions. These should be a routine part of this work, particularly for agencies used to working with older adults, who have very different needs. The state could also fund clinical consultants to be on-call to assist caseworkers in these programs.