What did that look like for you? Do you remember the first time you thought (and felt) “hey, I’m independent!” Maybe it was when you signed the lease on your first apartment, stepped on to your college campus on your own (no parents), or the first time you made a really hard decision on your own. Maybe it was when you bought your first car, or landed your first “real” job.
Now imagine what that experience must feel like for a child in foster care. Too many times, our youth give up on the notion of a family. We have children in our community who may never know what it feels like to have that person who loves you “no matter what.” They may not have the opportunity to see first hand what being part of a family means, learning what it means to have responsibilities, and how to become independent.
Even kids who are in the 18-20 range with loving, functional families providing lots of support are seldom ready for independence and self-sufficiency, so it would be foolish to believe that foster youth aging out of the system without traditional family help will find jobs, get apartments, go to college and otherwise get on with the business of living independently.
Foster youth are at risk of getting sucked into a virtual pipeline that dumps them right back into the county’s lap after they’ve tried “independence” and perpetuates the same dysfunction that affected their families in the first place. Studies of youth who have left foster care have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance.
It used to be that when children in foster care in our county turned 18, their surrogate parent – the county – would wish the youth well and hope that somehow the child would have the skills to make it on their own. The “system” hoped to never see them again. But the county too often did see them again, in court, in jail, living on the street, in substance-abuse treatment, sometimes suffering with mental health issues and often simply with nowhere to go.
But there is good news in Santa Barbara County. Several years ago California became one of a number of states that offered to help former foster youth navigate their way to age 21 if they could show they could keep a job or go to college.
This has been a huge step in the right direction, and has helped many children reach a level of independence. There are many resources available, but it is a maze of confusion. Which forms to fill out for which schools, how to get on the right waiting list for housing somewhere near school/work/life. Many programs, such as ILP (Independent Living Program), are underfunded and understaffed, and only a fraction of the kids needing services get the transition planning they need. Much of what was hoped for, such as appropriate housing for youth, is also complicated and expensive, and programs for independent living have not quite worked out as planned.
The other good news is that this year, volunteers from our community are stepping up to make sure that EVERY child has an advocate to help them navigate the road to independence. Someone who will connect them to the many resources that are available, and who will help them reach their goals.
To continue to serve every child, we will need 90 additional CASA volunteers over the next 10 months. If you are interested in being a part of all that IS working to help keep children safe, and see them into an independent life, I hope you will consider joining us.
Happy Independence Day!!
Kim Colby Davis