The roughly 14,000 young people in Michigan’s foster care system are expected to live on their own once they turn 18, if they're still in the system at that time. It is a transition that for many, does not go well.
In recognition of these bleak outcomes, there were about 200 young people ages 14 through 21 milling around a business school building at Ferris State University late last month, for the first day of a two day conference.
It is a lot of teenagers in one place, but the atmosphere is far from raucous. There is not a lot of giggling or noticeable showing off.
These young people are all in foster care in Michigan and the conference is supposed to help them age out of that system. Conference sessions are practical; like figuring out housing, how to be a self-advocate and how to budget. The young people are primarily serious.
Because this is serious. In foster care once you turn 18, you are effectively on your own, often without any safety net. Presenters at the conference from the state and advocacy groups talked a lot about what in foster care lingo is called the “transition to adulthood.” All of the young people get messages about this, even those as young as 14 years old.
Shelia Van Wert is a 21 year old college student presenter. Van Wert grew up in foster care and got visibly angry talking about the transition into adulthood during her session on self-advocacy.
“Why is it at 14 we are pushing it into these kids heads that it’s time to transition into adulthood?" she asked. "If you weren’t in foster care and you were 14 you would never hear that! And so why do you have to be an adult at 14? Why can’t you do 14 year old things - and be a kid?”
Advocates want these young people prepared with life skills early, as dropping these kids into the world on their own at age 18 is an approach that yields shockingly bad statistics. Nationally, the majority don’t finish high school, and fewer than 1 in 10 will earn a bachelor's degree. Unemployment, pregnancy, post-traumatic stress disorder - they all plague these young people much more relentlessly than they do the general population.
Lateashia LeBeau is 19 and attending the conference. She just graduated from high school and says the clock on her transition into adulthood started ticking the very same day.
"Within 30 days of my graduation, I have to find a job in order to keep my stipend (sic). I have to find a job or go to college. It’s stressful, it really is."
LeBeau lives in an area with high unemployment. Even if there were jobs to be had, she doesn’t have access to public transportation or a car and says her foster parents can’t take her to many interviews.
“Other children, they have their parents to help them and guide them though everyday life," she says, "and when you’re in foster care, you have to rely on your foster parents. And sometimes they don’t care as much as your real parents would, if you had parents.”
LeBeau is planning to enroll in community college but knows the paperwork will take a while. Without money from the state she doesn’t think she’ll be able to stay in her current foster home. “I know if I stop getting the money I’ll be S.O.L, literally," she says with a nervous sigh.
For its part, the state says situations like LeBeau's shouldn't be happening. About a year ago they launched a program called Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care. It is basically an extension of foster care until age 21 funded in part by the federal government. There are eligibility requirements and young people have to opt in, but when compared to other states, Michigan’s program is generous and pretty comprehensive.
LeBeau signed up for the program. The state says she should get a summer break like other young people in school without her needing to burn through one of the three 30 day grace periods the program allows. But that fact got confused somewhere between the state regulations and LeBeau.
"Oh yes, we still have a lot of training to do," said Kathonya Triplett. Triplett helps to administer the voluntary foster care program for the state. "We are actually providing trainings to many of our foster care workers and supervisors in the field so they can provide better case management services for this program."
The state doesn’t want young people getting kicked out of the program unnecessarily. The stakes are high for young people like 19 year-old Kasaa Reeves.
Reeves is tough and she’s been in serious trouble for it. But her mouth is full of braces that make her look young. She’s open and unfailingly polite.
"Right now, um, I don’t have a job, kind of homeless right now," she said. "I was in young adult independent living voluntary foster care. But now school is out and I have to find a job. And it’s kind of hard finding a job."
Reeves, like LeBeau, doesn’t have transportation, and she is 8 credits shy of a high school diploma. She hopes to find a job or just keep staying with friends until she gets back in school in the fall.
I wasn’t able to track her down to see how she’s doing now.
After I talked to the state about the program I did get back in touch with LeBeau on the phone. Even though she should be able to take a summer break in the voluntary foster care program, she said both she and her caseworker did not know that. But there have been positive developments. Her caseworker did help her enroll in community college and find a job through Michigan Works that she'll be starting soon.
At the same time, she says things at her foster home aren’t going so well.
"We just have a really bad relationship. I feel like I shouldn’t really be living here, but it’s the only thing I have right now." In a voice full of sarcasm but also with good humor she continues, "You know, if I could pick my parents before I was born I would do that. I wish I had the chance! Because being in foster care is not something anyone should have to go through."
So far about half of the 800 young people eligible for this extended foster care are enrolled in Michigan’s program, according to the state. It wants to see everyone eligible enrolled once they turn 18.
But the system is plagued by issues leading up to the Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care program that may make it difficult for young people to derive a net benefit from staying in the system longer. The state is still under a federal court order to improve safety and other things in its foster care system for all of the kids under age 18.
*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.