On the day of my so-called emancipation, I didn’t have a high school diploma, a place to live, a job, nothing...The day I emancipated—it was a happy day for me. But I didn’t know what was in store. Now that I’m on the streets, I honestly feel I would have been better off in an abusive home with a father who beat me; at least he would have taught me how to get a job and pay the bills.
—Roberta E., Los Angeles
The day I graduated from high school my foster mom told me, “You’ve been emancipated. You can’t live here anymore.” My social worker showed up—I was still in my little graduation dress and heels, my flowers, my cap on. My social worker had never talked with me. [She just] told me, “I’ve called around and found a shelter for you. You have a bed for four months.”
—Karen D., San Francisco
When children in foster care turn 18, they are, for the most part, on their own. “Emancipated,” they are legally adults and free from the foster care system. Most entered foster care because abuse or neglect at home triggered the duty of the state to step in and protect them. The state becomes parent; in that role, it must provide special measures of protection. The state must ensure that children in foster care have adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education. But no less important is the responsibility to provide the guidance and support necessary for children to grow into independent adults. When the state fails in its responsibility to protect children wholly dependent on it by not providing for their developmental needs, there are grim consequences. While exact estimates vary, research suggests that somewhere around 20 percent of the approximately 20,000 youth leaving foster care nationally each year will become homeless. For youth who leave foster care with no job or income, few educational prospects, and little emotional support or community connections, emancipation can mean nowhere to turn and no place to go.
Human Rights Watch interviewed young people who were removed as children from their family homes for abuse, neglect, or abandonment and placed in the custody and care of the state of California. After leaving foster care, they became homeless. The 63 young people interviewed had clear conclusions about the causes of their homelessness. No one pointed to a single event, nor did any interviewee wholly blame the child welfare system or another person. Instead, they pieced together a mosaic of events that spanned their teen years and early adulthood. They described missed opportunities to learn skills, the lack of the ability to support themselves, a shortage of second chances when things did not go right, and the fact that no one cared what happened to them.
From Foster Care to Homelessness
For some youth leaving foster care, homelessness comes the day they emancipate from the foster care system; others move from a foster home into a bad housing situation only to find themselves without shelter shortly thereafter. They may feel lucky to crash on a friend’s couch, or they find themselves sleeping in a car, at an emergency shelter, or in the park. Some are without a steady roof over their heads for days that turn into weeks or even years. Those leaving foster care with special needs often face a particularly rough road: mental health problems or cognitive limitations can bar entry to a transitional living program. So can being a parent. Youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender often have even fewer community resources and support to avoid homelessness.
Too many foster children face poverty, early pregnancy, educational failure, criminal victimization, or incarceration in early adulthood. Homelessness, with its attendant dangers—including exposure to predatory crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, and violence—is probably the worst outcome for a young person. Yet homelessness is a predictable future for many foster youth. Social workers know it. Many policymakers know it. Research confirms it. California’s own Department of Social Services concluded that 65 percent of emancipating youth lack safe and affordable housing at the time of emancipation. Although conclusions as to the rate vary, homelessness is a certainty for too many youth leaving foster care.
The route from foster care to homelessness is not only well-known to the state, but is, in effect, built into the system. Social workers transport some youth directly from foster homes to emergency shelters, fully aware that these shelters will house them for limited periods before turning them out onto the streets. Others are sent to transitional living situations with no back-up plan in place if things do not work out. Child welfare agencies release some youth from care when they have nowhere to live. Instead of providing extra protections for especially vulnerable youth, including mentally ill or impaired individuals and pregnant girls, state regulations often exclude them from transitional programs.
In California, 65,000 children and youth are in the foster care system, far more than any other single state. Each year, more than 4,000 emancipate. Between 2003 and 2008, over 26,500 youth emancipated from California’s foster care system. If an estimated 20 percent ended up homeless, 5,300 young people went from state care to homelessness in that period of time.
California is failing in an essential duty to children in its care: to prepare them for adulthood and to survive independently. There is no magic switch that at age 18 delivers the skills, knowledge, and support necessary for survival and success. Just as the state has a duty to provide appropriate shelter, food, and health care to children in care, it has a duty to address the crucial developmental needs of childhood and adolescence. The consequences are severe for young people who enter adulthood without this guidance and support.
No Realistic Plan for Emancipation
California state law requires child welfare agencies to develop, in conjunction with foster youth, a plan for what they will do when leaving foster care. Most of the youth Human Rights Watch spoke with had no plan when they left the system, or if one existed, they did not know about it.
In some cases, state officials fail to develop these plans at all, and in others, they create plans that are unrealistic and unlikely to prevent a youth from becoming homeless. For example, Natalie R. had three weeks left in foster care when we interviewed her. She had not yet finished high school and tests during the previous year placed her performance at an eighth-grade level. When asked if her social worker was putting together a plan with her for emancipation, she said, “Well, we’re talking about college.” There was no plan for where she would live or how she would support herself. Arlena C. told us, “My social worker never sat down with me to talk about emancipation. The only plan was for me to emancipate. They didn’t talk about where I was going to stay after I left foster care or anything like that.”She was 20 years old at the time of her interview, and had been homeless off and on since leaving care.
No Plan for Housing or the Income to Afford It
The vast majority of the young people interviewed by Human Rights Watch had no way to pay for housing at the time of emancipation: 57 of 63 young people we interviewed, or 90 percent, had no source of income when they left foster care and were expected to be on their own. They were also ill-prepared to find and hold a job: 65 percent of those interviewed had not graduated from high school at the time of emancipation. In addition, 62 percent had no medical coverage when they left the state’s care, despite a legal mandate that every former foster youth should have state medical coverage until age 21.
In the last ten years there has been an increase of funding and an infusion of effort to improve transitional living programs in California. However, the number of places is still far too small to assist all those who need them and the funding is under constant threat. Most post-emancipation transitional living programs offer reduced rent and can provide a supportive environment in which to learn life skills. Services can include case management, assistance with education, job training and support, and mentoring. California’s Transitional Housing Program-Plus (THP-Plus) was established by state law in 2001. The number of THP-Plus placements has dramatically increased: in 2003 there were places for 50 youth, by 2007 there were 502, and in 2008, 1,234 places. Yet in 2008, 4,653 youth emancipated from care.
Basic Living Skills
Tony D. told us: “If you’re going to put kids in group homes, in foster care—at least give them what they need to survive and take care of themselves.” We interviewed him at a homeless shelter where he was staying. “[When I aged out of care] I was expected to know how to get a job, buy a car, all that stuff, but ... I didn’t have any idea how to go about doing things. So, I ended up on the street.” Raul H. summed it up, “Kids need to be taught how to cook, how to shop. Simple, everyday life skills.” He was 21 years old when we spoke with him, and had been homeless but now was in an apartment.
For youth in care, several things impede what otherwise would be normal opportunities for hands-on learning experiences. Foster parenting tends to be geared to the needs of younger children. Foster parents are not trained or expected to teach adult life skills to teens. Michele Phannix, an experienced foster parent and a mentor to other foster parents, told us, “There needs to be more training on teenage issues for foster parents and how to guide them into becoming functioning adults. Foster parents are not receiving that kind of training.” Dr. Marty Beyer, a psychologist specializing in adolescent development and an expert on child welfare, believes those charged with caring for foster children take on a crucial role. “[T]he role that foster parents play ought to include what most parents think should be done for their children before they go off on their own.” For many of the young people interviewed, however, the state failed to ensure that foster parents provided teens in their care the kind of basic living skills that would be passed on in any typical home.
Nor do group homes teach what adolescents need to learn. Interviewees pointed out that the regimented, institutionalized setting provides even fewer opportunities to learn and practice adult skills than a foster family home. Anya F. was homeless for more than two years after leaving care. She spent a good part of her teenage years in group homes, and described her experience:
While in a group home there were so many things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even learn how to ride the bus on my own—but I had to go to a class that supposedly taught me how to do normal things. It’s a double standard that doesn’t make sense. It’s like they’re saying to us “You must be independent by age 18,” but then they don’t give us the room to learn to be independent. Don’t over-shelter us and then tell us to be independent.
While some youth in foster care participate in county-sponsored independent living skills classes, experts question the effectiveness of teaching life skills in a classroom. In any case, many of the youth interviewed for this report attended few or none of the classes, or said that they were not useful. Roberta attended just one life skills class. She described it as a last-minute cram session: “It was one week before emancipation. They gave us pots and pans, silverware. Taught us how to write a check. ... They gave us a certificate for taking the class and we had pizza and that was it.” Others who found the classes useful tended to describe hands-on teaching techniques.
No One to Turn to
One of the statements we heard most from interviewees was that no one really cared what happened to them, before or after emancipation. They expressed despair and fear about having no one to turn to after they left foster care; this lack of social support and guidance leaves young people particularly vulnerable to homelessness. While the state is obligated to aid foster youth in establishing and maintaining connections with relatives or other important figures, that did not happen for these young people. 48 of 63 youth interviewed told us they did not have an adult they could turn to in a crisis, for example, for a ride to the doctor if they were very sick. Nine said “maybe,” there might have been someone they could call, but were unsure. Just six youth of the 63 young people interviewed told us they had an adult on whom they could rely. “I feel like the people who were supposed to help me weren’t there for me—and I think what’s going to happen to me?” one young woman said. “Am I going to live on the streets for the rest of my life?”
Support Before and After Age 18 Is Needed
An abrupt end to childhood does not comport with what is now known about adolescent development or the norms in the US. In a healthy family, preparation for adulthood begins early in life and, in most US families, youth are not cut off from support at age 18. Instead, intact families continue to provide a wide spectrum of emotional and financial support as youth move through early adulthood. As Ashley, a former foster youth, said, “[N]obody puts their real kid out at 18. It’s being realistic.” In contrast, youth who age out of the foster care system must survive on their own without the support available to other young adults. While some are able to make a smooth transition to adulthood, many face serious challenges. Research shows that that youth emancipating from foster care are more likely than young people in the general population to have educational deficits and experience mental health problems, economic instability, criminal victimization, and early child bearing. They need support throughout early adulthood even more than the general population of young adults.
The young people interviewed for this report were currently or recently homeless former foster children. They hailed from all over California, from communities urban and rural, north and south. While there were many causes of their homelessness, their lives bear witness to the need for dramatic change in how foster youth are treated. This report is not a comprehensive review of what California’s 58 counties are doing to protect and provide for children and youth in care, nor is it a survey of programs, systems, or laws. Instead, it is a lens narrowly focused on one of the system’s most striking failings: the likelihood that youth in foster care will become homeless because foster care has not prepared them for adulthood.
1. Extend support for youth in foster care beyond age 18.
Transition to adulthood should be more gradual than it currently is for youth in foster care. Financial support, adult connection, shelter, and other safety nets should be provided in a graduated way into the early 20s for youth who need it. Youth who choose to leave state care at age 18 should have opportunities to return on the basis of need.
2. Guarantee that youth have useful emancipation plans.
Legally-mandated “transitional independent living plans,” which child welfare agencies are required to develop for each youth’s emancipation, should incorporate concrete arrangements for housing, income, connection to others, and medical coverage.
3. Create real opportunities for youth to develop skills for independence.
Everyday life skills should be taught in foster care at an earlier age and not just in a classroom setting. Youth should be provided opportunities throughout adolescence to practice tasks and skills for adulthood.
4. Help youth establish relationships that extend beyond emancipation.
To prepare youth in foster care for adulthood, the state should help them establish relationships with people who can offer guidance and support through early adulthood.
For detailed recommendations, please see page 62.
The foster care system in the United States serves as a safety net for children whose parents cannot care for them. These children find themselves in foster care through no fault of their own: the state removes them from their own homes because their parents or guardians have abused, neglected, or abandoned them, or have died. According to the most recent count, the foster care population in the United States was approximately 496,000 in 2007. California’s foster care population of more than 65,000 children is far greater than any other single state. Both nationally and in California, half of children in care are over the age of 10.
Children often come to the child welfare system’s attention through an emergency hotline. If the allegations are deemed serious, they are investigated. A child can be removed from his or her home on an emergency basis by a social worker or police officer and kept in protective custody for up to 48 hours, at which time a judge must review the case and the parents or guardian given an opportunity to be heard. The court makes the determination of whether to send the child home or keep him or her in protective custody based on the best interest of the child. If the court ultimately decides that the child should become a ward of the state, it must review the case every six months. Initially at least, the goal is to reunify the family. Social workers develop a case plan and services are offered to parents. Parents may have to prove they have rectified the neglectful or abusive circumstances. For example, a parent may have to show improvement in parenting skills and proof of having completed a parenting class, or that he or she is addressing a drug problem through treatment.
Nearly half a million referrals for suspected abuse or neglect are made each year in California. In 2008, over 97,000 cases were substantiated after investigation and of those, 32,753 children were placed into foster care.
The phrase “foster care,” as commonly used, includes an array of living situations. The majority of children in state care reside in foster families, group homes, and institutions. A foster family typically is a family or an individual who is not related to the child and is licensed to take foster children into their home. Nationally, 46 percent of children in state care are in foster family placements, compared with 38 percent in California.
A group home is a facility with a number of children or youth living there. It might be in a single family residence, or it might be in a larger, more institutional-style building. Group homes are managed by paid staff and can provide more structure and supervision than a foster family or relative home. Nationally, 17 percent of children in state care live in group homes or other institutions, compared with just seven percent in California. However, the percentage of youth ages 11 through 17 residing in group homes is double that, at close to 14 percent.
A significant number of children in state care—34 percent in 2008—are placed in the home of a relative. In California this is called “kin care.” This is significantly higher than the national average of 24 percent; however, it represents a decline in California from 1998 when 44 percent of foster youth were placed in the homes of relatives.
Foster care is intended to be temporary, to keep children safe and provide them with all necessities until a permanent living situation can be found. In practice, however, while many children spend just a few days in foster care, others remain for years, with some spending their entire childhoods in the foster care system. For these children, the role of the state is more that of a parent than a temporary guardian.
Emancipating from Foster Care
Children leave the foster care system for a variety of reasons. Some are reunified with their parents; others are adopted or gain a legal guardian who takes custody. But more than half of the children in state custody leave the system not because the problems that pushed them into state care are resolved: they leave simply because they become too old. In most states, the government assumes no responsibility for youth from age 18. Foster parents are not obligated to house, feed, or guide their foster children beyond this age, and group homes no longer provide a place to live. In the parlance of child welfare, youth who age out of the foster care system are “emancipated.”
Under California law, the state may retain jurisdiction over children in foster care up to age 21 but is not required to do so. California law prohibits an automatic emancipation based solely on age, but most youth who reach age 18 in the system will find their cases terminated. Statewide, 72 percent of those emancipating are 18 years old, with just 13 percent older than 18 at the time of emancipation. Although the law in theory permits young people to remain in care for other reasons, the only enunciated exception is for those who at age 18 have not graduated from high school or passed the General Educational Development (GED) exam but who are on track to complete an education or vocational program by their 19th birthdays. These youth may be able to stay in their foster care placements until they turn 19. The sad irony of this exception is that those who have not been able to complete high school or other programs preparing them for economic self-sufficiency before turning 19 are likely even less prepared to go out on their own than those who are perceived to be able to complete a course of study prior to age 19. “Some people need more help than others,” Malachi told us. But the way the system is set up, those people may get less support. “If you’re not doing good, like in school, or if you’re messing up a bit, they don’t want to help you. They want to kick you out.”
In fact, California appellate courts have held that the decision to terminate a child welfare case and emancipate a youth is within the discretion of the court and that the best interest of the youth must be considered in making that determination. Nevertheless, federal funding for state foster care ends at age 18. As a result, the cost of extending foster care may play a role in determining whether to retain jurisdiction over a foster youth past that age. A state legislator observed, "Although the juvenile court has the authority to retain jurisdiction over a dependent child until the age of 21, the reality is that federal funding for foster youth ends at the age of 18, and common practice is for the juvenile court to terminate jurisdiction at that time.”
Selected Federal and State Laws Governing Emancipation
In 2008, Congress unanimously passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (Fostering Connections Act). Some experts called this bill the “most significant foster care reform to come around in a decade.”The Act gives states the option to extend federal foster care benefits up to age 21 for youth who are in school, working, in a job training program, or unable to attend school or work due to a medical condition. It also provides reimbursement to states that amend their laws in accordance with provisions of the Act. For states that choose to extend foster care, reimbursement will begin in fiscal year 2011. In late 2008 California Assembly Bill 12 was introduced. If passed, it would, among other things, make California’s foster care laws comply with the provisions of the Fostering Connections Act. At the end of 2009, the bill was pending in the state legislature.
Both California state and federal laws include specific measures to promote preparation for adulthood for children and youth in state care. The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act (FCIA) was passed by Congress in 1999 in large part due to the growing recognition that foster children were faring poorly as young adults. FCIA doubled the funding designated to assist adolescents and young adults in foster care. Significantly, FCIA requires that states use a portion of the funds for foster and former foster youth up to age 21.
California law mandates that child welfare agencies develop transition plans for youth called “Transitional Independent Living Plan” (TILP) to help them prepare for adulthood. The purpose of the transition plan is to identify areas in which a young person needs to prepare for adulthood, and outline concrete steps and goals to learn those skills. The plan is initiated by the county welfare agency, and should be developed with the youth and other supportive adults and first implemented when a youth is 15 or 16 years old. It is meant to be regularly changed as goals are met. Ultimately, it should outline concrete plans and set goals for after emancipation.
For a youth to be emancipated, a hearing is necessary: jurisdiction can only be terminated by court order. State statutes require the county child welfare department to take certain steps intended to ensure a youth is prepared to be on his or her own before a court will sign an order of emancipation. The county welfare department must ensure that the youth is present in court, unless he or she does not want to appear. A law enacted in 2008 requires a judge to ask whether a youth was given the opportunity to attend, and to postpone the hearing to a later date to allow the youth to attend.
For emancipation, the department must also certify that it has provided certain things, including written information concerning the dependency case, family photos, the location of siblings, important documents, and information on how to access documents to which he or she is entitled. The agency must also report to the court that it has assisted the youth in obtaining health insurance; made a referral to transitional housing, if available, or provided assistance in securing other housing; aided in obtaining employment or other financial support; helped the youth apply to college or other educational institutions. Also required is assistance in maintaining relationships with relatives, friends, or other important individuals.
When children in foster care turn 18, they are, for the most part, on their own, no longer eligible for foster care. They are called “emancipated”—they are adults, and free from the foster care system—but this freedom often comes without the most basic necessities required to survive. With no job, no income, few educational prospects, and little emotional support or community connections, for some youth emancipation means nowhere to turn and no place to go. For these youth, emancipation is a direct route to the street.
It is unclear just how many young people emancipate from state care into homelessness. A California-focused survey of approximately 4,355 youth who emancipated from foster care in fiscal year 2000- 2001 found that 65 percent were “in need of safe and affordable housing,” a definition of homelessness used under federal law. Nationally, estimates vary widely, ranging from 13 to 25 percent of former foster youth becoming homeless.
It is estimated that at any point in time there are over 157,277 people in California who are homeless, and of those 110,312 are thought to be without shelter of any kind, that is, not even admission to a nightly emergency shelter.
For youth who end up homeless, competition for shelter can be fierce. In Los Angeles, the county with the highest number of emancipating youth, an estimated 96,169 people experience homelessness during the course of a year. There are estimated to be around 42,694 homeless people on any given night in the greater Los Angeles area and two-thirds
of that number are unsheltered. The rest are on the street or sleeping under freeway overpasses, in vehicles, parks, storage sheds, and other places not meant for human habitation. In 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimated that close to 10,875 people ages 18 to 24 were homeless on Los Angeles County’s streets each year.
Among the over 60 youth Human Rights Watch interviewed who became homeless after leaving California’s foster care system, the reasons for homelessness varied—some went straight from state care to living in a shelter or a car. “My social worker was one of those,
‘OK, you’re 18, that’s it, you’re out,’” Alicia M. said. She remembered getting no help from her social worker in planning for emancipation: “I had no clue what I was going to do after I turned 18.” Others drifted into homelessness after six months or a year in a temporary living situation or a place they could not afford. Some youth tried returning to their birth families, but found the same abuse, neglect, and chaos that precipitated their removal in the first place and then became homeless. One told of getting into college, but having no place to live during breaks and summer.
The route from foster care to homelessness is not only well-known to the state, but is, in effect, built into the system. Social workers transport some youth directly from foster homes to emergency shelters, fully aware that these shelters will house them for limited periods before turning them out onto the streets. Others are sent to transitional living situations with no back-up plan or safety net in place if things do not work out. Child welfare agencies release some youth from care when they have nowhere to live. Instead of providing extra protections for especially vulnerable youth, including mentally ill or impaired individuals and pregnant girls, state regulations often exclude them from transitional programs.
“Now that I’m on the streets, I honestly feel I would have been better off in an abusive home with a father who beat me—at least he would have taught me how to get a job and pay the bills,” Roberta told us. Her conclusion is staggering when put in the context of her extremely violent childhood. “My very first memory ... is [of] my father hitting me,” Roberta told us. “He kept sticks—you know the molding that goes around doors? That’s what he would hit us with.” She described her father’s regular beatings and the emotional thrashings that were everyday life before foster care. First placed in state care at age seven, she was in and out of the system until 18. Then her social worker told her to pack up and move out. The only help out the door was bus fare. “On the day of my so-called emancipation I didn’t have a high school diploma, a place to live, a job, nothing.” Roberta told us she had slept on the streets, in shelters, on a friend’s couch, and, for a couple of weeks, in a motel room.
Nowhere to Turn
Human Rights Watch interviewed youth who immediately became homeless when they emancipated, going directly from state care to the streets or a temporary shelter. Some youth described state officials driving them from a foster or group home to an emergency shelter upon their emancipation. Karen’s experience began on what is supposed to be a carefree day marking a rite of passage:
The day I graduated from high school my foster mom told me, “You’ve been emancipated. You can’t live here anymore.” My social worker showed up—I was still in my little graduation dress and heels, my flowers, my cap on. My social worker had never talked with me. [She just] told me, “I’ve called around and found a shelter for you. You have a bed for four months.”
We interviewed 18-year-old Lestat at an emergency shelter. His experience was similar to Karen’s: “The same day that I graduated from high school, my group home social worker told me, ‘I’m taking you to a shelter.’ After I got home from graduation, I had to pack my stuff and I was packing my graduation cap and my tassel and I thought to myself, ‘God, is this really happening to me?’ And then my group home social worker drove me here to this shelter.”
When Michael Y. turned 18, a probation officer drove him to an adult homeless shelter and dropped him off. We interviewed him at a shelter. As he described his life, he would not make eye contact and spoke so quietly that, even though he sat inches away, it was hard to hear his words. He had no money, he told us. “She gave me five bucks out of her own purse,” he recalled of the person who left him at the shelter.
Tiffany T. was taken from her foster home directly to a shelter when she graduated from high school. The shelter only allows people to stay for two months though; when we interviewed her she had been evicted from that shelter and was now at an emergency shelter and was number 25 on a wait list for a transitional living program. She thought it would be more than six months before she could get into the transitional program.
The varied ages of those interviewed, including young people who had emancipated only months prior to meeting with Human Rights Watch, and their experiences across California suggest that the practice of state officials transporting youth to shelters on their emancipation day is longstanding and not limited to specific geographic areas. James M., the director of a youth homeless shelter, told us he regularly has emancipated youth dropped off at his shelter, even though the shelter is intended for children under age 18. The social workers who drop off emancipated foster youth there probably do so because there is no other place to take them in that area, he said. “They leave them down the street, a block away, literally leave them by the gate and point them in the direction of our shelter,” he explained.  At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit to this shelter, there were at least five former foster youth staying there.
As Tiffany’s experience illustrates, shelters do not keep young people off the street for long, as there are often limits on how long someone can stay. Dee H., a former foster youth, was at an emergency shelter at the time of our interview. Eighteen years old and pregnant, she was sad and subdued during her interview. She told us, “I’ll be kicked out of here tomorrow. A lot of places won’t take me because I’m pregnant. I found [this shelter] in the phone book.” She said she had no idea where she would go after her time at the shelter ran out.
Abandoned Buildings, Cars, Couch-Surfing, Parks, and the Streets
Some young people interviewed were kicked out of their foster or group home without being taken to a shelter. “I was told on Wednesday that I had until Saturday to move out of the
[group] home where I was staying,” Warren H. explained. “It caught me by surprise. I tried to tell [the guy running the group home] that I had no place to go, but he told me I couldn’t stay there.” Warren offered to pay rent. “I asked, ‘Couldn’t I stay in the garage?’ The guy told me, ‘No, you can’t stay here. You don’t make enough money to pay rent—it wouldn’t be worth it to me.’” For the next two years he slept where he could, in his car, shelters, or the occasional friend’s couch. Aaron T. also said he slept in his car after turning 18 in a group home. “Sometimes you think it’s better to be in jail or dead. But I tried to think positive about it. My Pontiac was comfortable.”
Staying in a homeless shelter can be more dangerous than finding a place to sleep on the streets, some interviewees told us. This is particularly true for shelters designed for adults. “I feel safer on the streets than in shelters. Shelters are violent, they’re dirty. The security is violent; there are a lot of drug addicts,” Roberta told us. “On the streets you can find quieter, safer places.”
Young people told us of setting up tents in the woods and putting sleeping bags under freeway overpasses. Enrique A. took a Human Rights Watch researcher to his favorite tent site along a wooded riverbank. Stopping at a flat area a few feet from the river’s edge he said, “Right here was my campfire pit.” He described raking the dirt and leaves at his campsite to make sure there were no needles left there from heroin users; he worried about stepping on them or having them poke through the floor of his tent. He remembered one particularly dangerous evening: “I never knew how many people were in these woods until one night there was a fire and everyone came running out.”
Matt H. remembers what it was like with nowhere to go one cold and raining night. “Night comes. It’s cold. I’m hungry. Where am I going to go?” He was arrested for breaking into and sleeping in an empty house.
Others described staying at friends’ homes, moving from couch to couch. Dion W. stayed at a number of friends’ houses, and tried to hide the fact that he had nowhere to live. “The whole time I was homeless I didn’t tell people what was going on. I couldn’t believe myself that this was happening.”
Returning to Birth Families
A common but often unsustainable option is returning to the birth family. Tayla G. said she felt her only option was to return to her birth mother: “I was in foster care because my mother was abusive, due to addiction ... [and] drinking. When I got out of foster care, my only place to go was back to my mom.” The return was equally as rough: “I only stayed a couple months there. I wasn’t sure when I’d wake up and find her yelling at me to get out ... It was too hard ... her drinking, hitting on me, talking down to me, calling me names.”
Marvin M. also tried returning to the birth family he had been removed from when placed in foster care. At 18 when he was told he had to leave his group home, Marvin moved in with his biological mother. Her long-standing drug addiction had been the cause of his placement in foster care in the first place. But at the time he emancipated, she was not using drugs, so he tried moving back in with her. “It was hard trusting her,” he said, explaining that she still “didn’t have herself together.” Living with her did not last long; she returned to drug use. Later, Marvin found himself homeless.
When Sandy S. left foster care, she had nowhere to go. She turned to the only adult she knew: a family member who had sexually abused her. “At that time I didn’t want to be anything, I just wanted to die. I didn’t care what happened to me.” She lived with him for over two years as the abuse escalated, enduring rape, beatings, and emotional torment. When she gathered the courage to leave at age 20, she slept in her car for several months. She later moved in with a boyfriend she did not want to live with, she said, only to have a place to stay.
Whitney Rhodes is a former foster youth, who, when we interviewed her, was an emancipation specialist with AmeriCorps, working with high school students in foster care. Rhodes told Human Rights Watch, “I see a lot of young people who have no place to go when they get out. The family you get taken away from is still there—that’s why you go back to them no matter how dysfunctional they are.”
Unsafe and Undesirable Alternatives to Living on the Street
The pressure of not having a place to live can push youth into choosing prostitution or abusive relationships in order to get off the street. “When I had no place to go at night, I would go home with someone,” Jaime N. said of his choosing prostitution over sleeping in a park or building doorway. Jose C., in a transitional living program when we spoke with him, described a similar situation: “A lot of times I’d go home with somebody so I didn’t have to be on the streets.”
Several of the interviewees lamented the fact that they entered into romantic relationships in order to have a place to live. “I got into a relationship just so I could stay [at the person’s home],” said Roberta, reflecting on how her desperation left her feeling trapped in an abusive relationship. “I see females saying, ‘I’m going to live with my boyfriend because I don’t have no place to go.’ I know for a fact some of these are abusive relationships, but they have no other place to go,” observed Dee Melendez, a liaison to former foster youth and financial aid specialist at a community college.
Heather Carmichael is the associate executive director of My Friend’s Place, a drop-in center for homeless youth in Hollywood. Many of the youth My Friend’s Place serves are former foster children. She notes that young people who are homeless are extremely vulnerable to victimization:
We all just want to be loved, and these young people are starving for that. To get that love they are willing to compromise little pieces of themselves—and it can end up being big pieces. So many have histories where they’ve been taught that their bodies are not their own; they have histories of sexual abuse. Some youth learn to use their bodies for survival and provide sex for the things they need—it could be food, a place to stay, a job.
A foster parent for many years said that in her experience, youth with cognitive limitations or learning disabilities are especially vulnerable in this regard: “They go along with someone who might be bad for them, but they go along because they’ll be loved.”
Going off to college does not necessarily address housing issues. When Melendez, the Financial Aid Specialist for Victor Valley College, was first appointed by the college chancellor to be a liaison for former foster youth, she started tracking the population. “I noticed that their grades are pretty bad,” she said. But when Melendez looked deeper into the issue she found, “It’s not that they’re not smart enough, or don’t apply themselves ... it’s that some of them don’t have a place to live. They’re worried about where [they are] going to sleep tonight.” Some have to quit school. Students tell Melendez, “I’ve just started this semester, but I have to stop. I don’t have a place to live.”
Eighteen-year-old Derek P. was attending college while living in his truck when we spoke with him. He said he was booted from his group home when he turned 18. “I’m living inside my car,” he told us, his red Chevy Blazer sitting in the parking lot next to where we met. “It’s a four-door, and I can drop the back seat, so that’s my bed. I got blankets, whatnot.” When he wakes in the morning, he said, he parks his car in a safe place and, because he cannot afford the cost of gas, he takes the bus to the community college. There he is studying auto repair, French, and music interpretation. “I go buy Top Ramen [instant noodles] ... they got microwaves at the college so ... you know. But it’s alright. It’s alright.” “A lot of students are brushing their teeth and washing their hair in the bathroom (at community college),” said Melendez.
Even youth who leave foster care for college and live in a dorm may end up scrambling for a place to live when the dorms close for summer and breaks. Melissa B. headed to college after leaving foster care but found that each round of breaks brought another housing challenge. “Our [college] had a long winter break—six weeks—and I had nowhere to go,” she said. Gerry Hauser, a foster parent for 35 years, recalled the experience of one of her foster sons who went to college after foster care. “At summer time, he came back to us, but we couldn’t help him because we had other children living with us.” She explained that state licensing regulations prohibited another person in the house. “He slept in his car in the driveway or in the loft in our garage. It was hard for him.”
California Failed to Prepare these Youth for Adulthood
When the state removes a child from home for parental neglect or abuse, the child becomes wholly dependent on the state for food, shelter, and access to education. But no less important is the guidance and support that a child requires to grow into an independent adult. Young people need to learn skills for adulthood and they need solid plans for income, housing, and support before they are on their own. Existing state law recognizes these tasks as essential, yet for the youth interviewed for this report, the state has failed.
In relating the stories of their lives in foster care and tracing the reasons for their homelessness, young people pointed to missed opportunities to learn skills, the lack of the ability to support themselves, a shortage of second chances when things did not go right, and to the lack of anyone in their lives who really cared about what happened to them.
No Realistic Plan for Emancipation
State law requires child welfare agencies to develop in conjunction with a youth a Transitional Independent Living Plan (TILP). In some cases, state officials fail to develop these plans at all, and in others they develop plans that are unrealistic and unlikely to prevent a youth from becoming homeless.
Most of the youth Human Rights Watch spoke with had no plan in place when they left the system, or if they did, they did not know about it. For example, Arlena C. told us, “My social worker never sat down with me to talk about emancipation. The only plan was for me to emancipate. They didn’t talk about where I was going to stay after I left foster care or anything like that.” Phillip O., who also said he did not have a plan when he left foster care, told us, “I didn’t really see my social workers much—really, I’d be lucky to see a social worker once a year.” Sandy S. got no support in planning for leaving foster care and being on her own. “The social worker said, ‘Figure out what you are going to do with your life.’ No help, just a statement. When I turned 18, I had nowhere to go.” Dion also left state care
without a plan in place. He got in to transitional housing a month later, but in the interim was homeless.
Title IV-B Child and Family Services Plan for fiscal years 2005-2009 describes the Transitional Independent Living Plan. It states that the plan should focus on “educational and experiential learning needed for youth to function as healthy, productive and responsible self-sufficient adults.” Recognizing that the TILP process was failing to involve youth, the State Health and Human Services Agency, Department of Social Services issued a new form and new instructions for use starting in October 2008. “The purpose of the TILP is to describe the youth’s current level of functioning, identify emancipation goals, services, activities and individuals assisting the youth in the process of obtaining self-sufficiency,” the letter to all counties specifies. The new form has space for four goals. In one set of training materials examples of goals include learning to do laundry, improving an algebra grade, seeking information from a school counselor on how to work in a veterinarian’s office, and beginning dating by asking another youth to go to a movie.
In cases in which youth did have a plan put in place prior to leaving care, they reported that the plans were not realistic or appropriate for their needs. At the time Natalie R. was interviewed, she had three weeks until she would be emancipated from the system. She had not yet finished high school and the previous year had tested at an eighth-grade level. When asked if her social worker was putting together a plan with her for when she left, she answered, “Well, we’re talking about college.”
At least in some cases, even judicial review at a youth’s final dependency hearing does not keep young people from moving on without a plan in place. Tina Hughes said she was astonished at her foster daughter’s hearing. The attorney representing her daughter had never even met the young woman. Hughes wondered if he had reviewed the file. “We went to court. There was an attorney there, he didn’t talk to [my foster daughter,] he didn’t even have her right name. He’d gotten the case Thursday afternoon and Friday morning was court.” Another young woman, Tayana I., recalled her own hearing: “I didn’t speak to the judge; I didn’t even go into [the courtroom].” She speculated on what the judge said about her case: “Basically I think the court said, ‘Just let her go.’” Malachi had been allowed by court to stay with his foster mother after age 18 because he was working towards a high school diploma. When he got a job, he needed help figuring out how to get to his workplace from his foster home. His social worker did not help, and Malachi decided to leave and go live with a friend. There was no hearing, or, to Malachi’s knowledge, any judicial review of his emancipation. A few months later he was out of work and had no place to live.
At 18, Marvin had to leave a group home in Fresno, a different county than his home county. That meant moving back across that state before he graduated from high school. Back in San Diego, he remembers the judge’s assessment at his emancipation hearing: “You’re doing good, even though you didn’t get to graduate.” But in fact, in addition to no diploma, he had no source of income. He told us that the judge did not ask how he would support himself. He lived with his unstable biological mother for a while, but later found himself homeless.
No Income to Afford Housing
In California, the lack of affordable housing is a problem of crisis proportions in many locations. Housing costs are one reason that homelessness is an epidemic in California.
Compared to their peers, former foster youth have a tough time meeting basic housing-related expenses. According to a 2007 large scale, longitudinal study of young adults emancipated from foster care, 21-year-old former foster youth were more than three times as likely to have been unable to pay the rent in the last year as their peers who had not been in foster care. They were also more likely to have had utilities shut off, phone service disconnected, and to have faced eviction.
The vast majority of those we interviewed who became homeless had no source of income at the time of emancipation. Ninety percent of the interviewees had no source of income at the time of emancipation, and thus, no way to pay for housing.
The social workers who managed these cases, the judges who signed the emancipation orders, the attorneys and others involved should have known that without income, homelessness was the likely outcome.
Most were poorly equipped to find a job, as well: 65 percent of those interviewed had not graduated from high school at the time they left foster care. In addition, only 62 percent of the interviewees were enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state health care plan that by law provides medical coverage to all former foster children up to age 21. Tony D.’s situation was typical: “I was expected to know how to get a job, buy a car, all that stuff, but ... I didn’t have any idea how to go about doing things. So, I ended up on the street.”
California’s Transitional Housing Program-Plus (THP-Plus) was established by state law in 2001. It is the state’s primary program for housing former foster children who have emancipated from the system, providing housing and services for up to 24 months for young adults ages 18 to 24. Its services directly affect the lives of former foster youth who are homeless: a report published in 2009 found that 39 percent of participants in the THP-Plus program had been homeless at some point before entering the program.
In recent years there has been a tremendous infusion of funding and effort to improve transitional living programs in California. In 2006, California increased the amount of funding for THP-Plus, and made it easier for counties to provide the program for former foster youth. The annual budget for THP-Plus in the 2008-09 fiscal year was $40.8 million, although in the fall of 2009, those funds were reduced in response to the state’s budget crisis.
At their best, post-emancipation transitional living programs can not only subsidize the rental cost of housing, but also provide a supportive environment in which to learn life skills. Services can include case management, assistance in pursuing post-secondary education, job readiness training and support, mentoring, and support for building permanent relationships with caring adults. Unfortunately, some existing programs only prolong state custody without assisting youth in preparing for their independence.
The THP-Plus Statewide Implementation Project was created in 2006 as a partnership between state agencies and private organizations. The project provides technical assistance and training to service providers, and has also has begun analyzing the effectiveness of programs, using, among other things, input from young adult participants. If it accomplishes its goals, the amount of transitional housing for former foster youth will increase and the quality of supportive services will improve.
The number of placements has dramatically increased since the program’s inception: in 2003 THP-Plus had a moment-in-time capacity of 50 youth, by 2007 the figure was over 500, and during 2009 it rose to 1,300. According to the most recent THP-Plus annual report, 1,548 former foster and probation youth in 39 counties received affordable housing and services through THP-Plus in the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
These efforts are perhaps the most promising steps the state has taken toward supporting emancipated youth. Nevertheless, the placements available to youth fall short of the need. In 2008 alone, over 4,600 youth emancipated. Each year another group of youth emancipate and join the ranks of young adults competing for housing and services: The group of 18 to 24 year olds who would be eligible for THP-Plus on the basis of age in 2008 would be those who had emancipated in the years 2003 through 2008, a total of over 26,500 young people. While all youth may not need or want to participate in the THP-Plus, the high rate of homelessness among former foster youth compared to the 1,548 persons served in 2008 suggests that there are not enough placements for youth leaving care.
The availability of placements varies dramatically from county to county. For example, the THP-Plus Statewide Implementation Project estimates that Alameda County has the potential to meet between 64 and over 100 percent of the need for THP-Plus placements. Los Angeles, however, is thought to only meet between four and seven percent of the county’s need. Dee Melendez, Financial Aid Specialist for Victor Valley College, said she tries to get former foster youth into transitional living programs, but too often “the answer is, ‘sorry, we’re full, we don’t have the resources, or he’s not in our county.’ I hear that a lot.”
It is not simply numbers; geography is also challenging. San Bernardino County, for example, is some 215 miles wide and 150 miles from north to south. It is the largest county in the US, with a geographic area greater than the nine smallest US states combined. In late 2008, 19-year-old Tanya C., a San Bernardino resident, told Human Rights Watch she would like to be in the THP-Plus. However, the only program in her county was far from where Tanya lived. Moving across this county is akin to moving out of state, and she understandably feared it would jeopardize the fragile community of friends and supporters she had built in recent years. It would also mean that to continue with her community college classes she would have to drive 45 minutes to two hours each way, depending on traffic. Between work and classes, that type of commute would be daunting, and she doubted her old car would survive so much wear and tear.
Finally, as the THP-Plus Statewide Implementation Project recognizes, to be effective, transitional living programs need to provide more than just shelter. Most young adults need ongoing support as they navigate through the ups and downs of early adulthood. It is a time to learn important life skills, something that is especially true for former foster youth. “Between 18 and 23 years old is a five-year window of opportunity to help these kids develop the skills needed to be independent,” says Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children, a program serving over 2,000 current and former foster youth. Its programs include several transitional living programs with concentrated supportive services for the residents.
If transitional programs do not provide those important services and opportunities, they offer little more than a sort of holding pattern for the young people in the program. For many, it will mean scant progress toward self-sufficiency. Tony was in foster care from age three until the time he aged out at 18 years old. He was taken to what he describes as a halfway house with little supervision or guidance. “No one cared where I went or what I did,” he told us. Tony was there nine months, and when the program ended, he had no new adult skills or connections with people who could help him. He was essentially in the same place he had been nine months earlier, only now he was on the streets, homeless. Those interviewed who found themselves homeless after a transitional living program expressed gratitude for food vouchers and a roof over their head, but felt that much more guidance was needed for the programs to be meaningful. James, a homeless shelter director, said, “We sometimes see these programs as a set up for failure. They’re dumped into an apartment without support. Then when things don’t work out, it’s their failure and by that time they are not eligible for additional programs and they’re back with us [at the homeless emergency shelter.]”
Basic Living Skills Lacking
Being an adult involves a combination of mature cognitive ability and concrete living skills. Both need practice. Psychologist Marty Beyer specializes in adolescent development and is a national expert on child welfare and juvenile justice. She explained that while adult-like thinking comes with brain maturation, it also improves with practice:
Teenagers are limited in their ability to anticipate consequences of their actions, they are limited in their ability to plan and make choices—these are skills to be learned, these are adult thought processes. We can’t really speed up their ability to plan ahead, anticipate the consequences of their actions or make choices, but we can walk them through the process and help them learn and thereby expose them to the adult thought process, the process of, say, being a good budgeter, a good cook.
Tony put it another way: “If you’re going to put kids in group homes, in foster care, at least give them what they need to survive and take care of themselves.”
Nearly every youth interviewed for this report felt that he or she left foster care without knowledge of basic skills for everyday living. Raul H. explained, “Kids need to be taught how to cook, how to shop. Simple, everyday life skills.” When asked about the causes of their homelessness, interviewees tended to spontaneously list skills they wish they had been taught, specifically mentioning how to prepare basic food, apply for a job, shop, budget, understand credit, and know polite behavior for even simple things, such as how to courteously answer the phone. “I need to know how to budget, where to look for work, how to apply for school financial aid,” one young woman listed. “[How to] wash clothes, cook, clean, know what chemicals you can mix and what you can’t when you’re cleaning—like ammonia and bleach—I learned that the hard way when I was cleaning a bathroom.”
A connection between passing on simple skills and being cared for was linked by several interviewees, including Nikki B. who told us: “I wish I could have had ... someone to care about me ... like show me how to separate the whites from the darks [for laundry.] I would have hated it at the time, but I wish I’d had that. They never even asked me, ‘Is something wrong? Talk to me.’” Sandy’s foster mother made clear that she was a foster parent for the money, not the experience, Sandy told us. “I’m not into getting to know you...” her foster mother informed her from the start. “I’m getting a check. Do what you want, but don’t screw up my check.” This certainly had emotional effects: “As I got deeper into the foster care system, I realized I had no love, no family connection in my life.”But there were other effects, too, when her foster mother refused to take the time to teach Sandy the same life skills she was teaching her own daughter. Sandy remembered with sadness scenes from her foster home. “I watched my foster mom teaching her daughter how to cook, but she never bothered with me. They looked like they were having fun ... I don’t know how to cook. [Now] I mostly eat out of a can.”
For youth in care, several things impede what otherwise would be normal opportunities for hands-on learning experiences. First, foster homes and parenting tend to be geared to the needs of younger children. Michele Phannix, a foster parent with 18 years of experience, a mentor, and parent-partner, told us that specific standards should be set for parents who are fostering teens. “These are rules that make sense for younger kids. We’re trying to keep them safe,” she explained, but the rules do not reflect older youth’s abilities and needs. For example, regulations about locking up cleaning supplies and leaving a foster youth alone at home should be modified. Phannix also stated, “There needs to be more training on teenage issues for foster parents and how to guide them into becoming functioning adults. Foster parents are not receiving that kind of training.” The adults charged with caring for youth in state custody have an important role to play in passing on basic skills. Their duties should include things that, says Dr. Beyer, “most parents think should be done for their children before they go off on their own. It’s similar to what we require foster parents to do in ... parenting [young children]—feeding, adequate clothing, haircuts—it is just that there are different tasks for adolescents.” Dion, who entered foster care at five years old, believes the system must also more carefully choose and monitor foster parents. In one of his placements, the foster parent never reported him missing even though he had run away and was gone for two weeks, and he certainly was not being taught adult-living skills while there. In a rather understated conclusion about his experience, he said, “[t]he foster care system doesn’t pick people who are qualified.”
For many of the young people interviewed, the state failed to ensure that foster parents provided teens in their care the kind of basic living skills that would be passed on in any typical home. Dr. Beyer noted, “In most homes, parents know it is their responsibility to provide some amount of training in preparation for adulthood—cooking, cleaning, and in some homes, driving a car—these are normal expectations in parental activities. Do foster parents think that because there are ILSP classes, they are off the hook from having to teach basic skills to teenagers? That’s a crazy idea. All of these skills require daily input.”
Second, state-run group homes, where a majority of the youth interviewed had spent time, fail to provide the types of learning that adolescents need. Interviewees pointed out that the regimented, institutionalized setting gives even fewer opportunities to learn and practice adult skills than a foster family home. Tony was in foster care from age three until 18, and lived in several group homes during his adolescence: “People in group homes are paid to watch us. You can’t do anything. It felt like being in daycare. You have to ask to do things. They treat you like a baby.” Anya spent a good part of her teenage years in group homes. She was extremely frustrated by her experience:
While in a group home there were so many things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even learn how to ride the bus on my own—but I had to go to a class that supposedly taught me how to do normal things. It’s a double standard that doesn’t make sense. It’s like they’re saying to us, “You must be independent by age 18,” but then they don’t give us the room to learn to be independent. Don’t over-shelter us and then tell us to be independent.
The state attempts to instill proficiency in adult tasks through county-based “Independent Living Skills” classes, intended to teach subjects such as budgeting, cooking, and applying for jobs. The length, availability, and type of classes vary greatly from county to county.
Some of those interviewed said they never attended the classes nor knew they existed. Others knew of the classes but said they were unable attend because they lacked transportation or because the classes were full. The experiences of the others we spoke to who did attend varied widely. For example, Darlene H., who attended 18 classes, told us, “they had taught me some of these things before I left foster care. I knew some stuff before I left enough so that I didn’t panic. I would have panicked otherwise.” Another, Roberta, attended just one life skills class, which she described as a last-minute cram session of limited utility: “it was one week before emancipation. They gave us pots and pans, silverware. Taught us how to write a check ... They gave us a certificate for taking the class and we had pizza and that was it.” Describing a positive experience in a non-classroom setting, another interviewee, Melissa, said she got a lot out of a highly experiential program called “Independent City.” “You spend the day at a place where they have the phone company, utilities, a bank, a property management company, and you get assigned a roommate, a job, a house and then fill out rental applications, deal with your paycheck coming on a certain date and bills due ... I learned a lot there.” Malachi echoed the importance of experiential learning. Looking back, he thinks the classes he took were not very useful. “They say ‘You should do this. You should do that.’ ... but it’s like they don’t have the youth involved. It means you’re not really learning how to do something.”
No One to Turn to
One of the most consistent statements from youth interviewed was that they felt no one really cared what happened to them, before or after emancipation. Interviewees expressed despair and fear about having no one to turn to after they were ejected from foster care. Forty-eight of the 63 youth we interviewed told us they did not have an adult they could turn to in a crisis, for example, for a ride to the doctor when they were very sick. Nine said “maybe;” leaving just six of those interviewed answering “yes.” A young man who asked to be called “Reclusive” told us, “For the longest time I’ve had no one I can go to—it’s just easier to be on the streets.” “I feel like the people who were supposed to help me weren’t there for me—and I think what’s going to happen to me?” one young woman said. “Am I going to live on the streets for the rest of my life?”
There is a growing recognition that becoming a healthy adult requires connection to and dependence on others. State law requires the county welfare agency to assist foster children and youth in maintaining relationships with individuals who are important to the youth. Efforts to locate family members before emancipation are occurring in some counties. For example, recognizing that where parents are found to be unfit to care for a child, there may be other family members who would be willing to be involved in a child or young person’s life, the California Permanency for Youth Project seeks out extended family members. As of April 2008, the program was being used in 20 California counties or regions. Using the internet and other methods employed to connect separated families following World War II, social workers search for family members who are not present in a child’s life. The program focuses on foster youth ages 11 and older. “[T]ypically we find between 30 and 80 family members,” explained Bob Malmberg of Orange County’s Social Services Agency. “We engage extended family members from across the country—we give the youth phone cards so they can call new-found family.” The agency arranges visits, sets up dinner meetings, and even provides plane tickets for young people to meet extended family. The family may have had no idea where the child was, and the child may not have known he had family. “We are seeing amazing results,” Malmberg concluded, citing several cases in which children’s behavioral problems changed dramatically after being connected with family. One example was of a boy who had been told he had no family but apparently did not believe it:
[He] ran [away] from a group home to his former group home; it’d been closed down. He broke into the building and when he was caught he was in the office rifling through the file with his records, looking for the names of family members. We put him in [our family-finding] pilot project, and we found 25 extended family members. This boy was having a lot of behavioral problems, with ... 40 incidents a month that involved things like suicide attempts, assaults on staff, or running away. When we did the family-finding process with him, the incidents went down to one a month. We brought in family from out of state and they met with him and told him, “We heard about you [when you were a baby but then] we were told that you’d been adopted and we couldn’t contact you. But we never forgot you.” Then we found that his great-grandparents live in the adjoining county, in Hemet. [We set a time to meet them but] were a little late getting to the house and when we arrived, he was confronted with these octogenarians waiting for him on the driveway. When he went inside they showed him a wall that had birthday cards they had written to him over the years but not sent because they didn’t know where he was. They’d been holding the cards for him and there they were, on the wall collecting dust, waiting for him to show up.
There is a particular vulnerability that comes with being young and making decisions for the first time. “When a young person is homeless, those decisions are left unguided or guided by people in similar circumstances,” Carmichael explained. “So, instead of coming home and at the dinner table bringing up something, ‘Hey, I am having a fight with so-and-so’ and getting adult input, they are talking with others who are in crisis, on the streets, perhaps using drugs. We know how powerful peer input can be.”
A positive connection with an adult can come in many forms. Enrique was living in a homeless encampment along the Sacramento River until an adult took an interest in him and helped him make the decision to go to a shelter. His experience is an example of how important emotional support can be for a young adult.
I’m a ladies’ man. I mean, I like taking girls out. See that ice cream shop there? One week I brought in a different girl three days in a row. Later, the guy working there said to me, “You’re slick, aren’t you? I seen you in here with a different girl every day...” and we started talking. He said, “I didn’t know you were homeless.” He was surprised.
We’d talk together. He’d ask me questions; he helped me think about what I want to do in my life. I think I might try to be an EMT [emergency medical technician]. He encouraged me, helped me think through what it’d take, look at what classes I would need to take to do it ... He helped me think about things. He encouraged me to get off the streets and go to this shelter.
Enrique’s story illustrates how important guidance can be in early adulthood. Cheryl Alexander, a supervisor in Orange County’s Emancipation Service Program, noted the importance of relationships and emotional support even in the absence of more concrete help regarding homelessness. “Even if you are couch-hopping, if you just have someone you can call it is so significant to have someone to be there when you need them.”
Mia S. was 10 years old when her mother died, and 14 when her father died. By the time she left the foster care system, she had been in 12 foster home placements and two group homes. Not one provided an adult who cared about her. She began running away when she was 10. “I’d go to a park and sit on a bench. It wasn’t so much running away as it was leaving and seeing if anyone cared enough to come find me. I just wanted someone to care.” While Mia’s placements never produced such a relationship, as a teen she had the good fortune of entering a creative arts program in Los Angeles. There she grew close to a staff member who became her de facto mentor. Ilia Jauregui promised to stay in her life, and over the years she proved a valuable source of support for Mia, even letting her stay in her home when she was homeless. Now 20, Mia still turns to Ilia for advice and guidance. Ilia helped her find a transitional living program, and Mia recently started classes in business administration and is working on her high school diploma. “I feel like a lot of the good choices I’m making are because Ilia is there for me.”
Foster Youth Need Special Assistance
The difficulty of helping any teenager plan for adulthood should not be understated. Developmentally, many youth may not be ready to think about the future, even at age 16 or 17. Miryam Choca, Director of California Strategies for Casey Family Programs reflected, “I have a 23-year-old daughter. Thinking about talking to a 15-year-old about how ‘you’re going to be on your own in a few years,’ it’s just not the right time. They’re not ready.” Lestat, an 18-year-old who was sleeping in a homeless shelter at the time he was interviewed, echoed her observation. “My social worker did talk with me [over time] and ask me what I was planning to do when I emancipated. I didn’t want to think about it. I thought, ‘Jeez, you know, why are we having these damn conversations? I’m only 16 and it’s so long before I turn 18.’ And then, oh ... how did time fly so fast?”
Some youth in foster care may be less ready to absorb life skills than their peers due to special needs. While some are able to make the transition to adulthood smoothly, many face serious challenges. Research shows that that youth emancipating from foster care are more likely to have educational deficits, mental health problems, economic instability, criminal victimization, and early child-bearing.
Planning for emancipation and support should account for these special needs. Instead, some transitional programs exclude the youth who need them the most: youth with mental health problems, juvenile delinquency records, pregnant youth, or youth with children. “The truth of the matter is that the kids who qualify for [many transitional programs] are the ones more likely to succeed anyway,” explains Laura Streimer, the Legal Director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights. Additionally, pre-emancipation programs are not geared toward special needs, either.
The Effects of Childhood Trauma
Children and youth in foster care may not be ready to learn independent living skills and plan for the future at the same time as their peers who have not experienced trauma and extreme disruption. The events that land a child in foster care can later impede planning and acquisition of skills: childhood trauma can negatively affect both neurological and psychosocial development.“The history of trauma often impacts development,” explained Heather Carmichael, who, as the associate director of a drop-in center for youth who are homeless, works daily with youth who have experienced childhood trauma. A history of trauma “can compromise a youth’s readiness or ability to plan for the future.”
Many of the young people interviewed for this report had by age 10 lived through things most adults cannot fathom. At least two watched a parent kill or cause serious bodily injury to another parent. They experienced rape, beatings by family members, and emotional abuse that left them blaming themselves for their families’ disintegration. For some these ordeals did not stop when they entered state care. Instead, the experience of sexual abuse,
physical harm, and emotional distress continued. Kati R. described being molested in her placement: “Things happened, traumatic things, and then before I could deal with it, something else would happen.”
Lack of Community Connection for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth
“My family rejected me because I am gay,” Blake T. told Human Rights Watch. “My Dad was abusive—physically [and] emotionally. I had to go back into this drama [after leaving foster care]. [It was] a dangerous situation, but I had no place to go.” Blake’s experience is probably not uncommon. Youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are at special risk for homelessness, and may have special needs at emancipation.
The proportion of homeless youth who are LGBT is staggering. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force PolicyInstitute and the National Coalition for the Homeless have concluded that between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBT. For LGBT youth in the foster care system, the chances of homelessness may be even greater than for non-LGBT foster youth. “An LGBT youth emancipating from the child welfare system is apt to have fewer family and community resources to rely on and so is more likely to end up homeless,” said Jody Marksamer, staff attorney and Youth Project Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Some LGBT youth enter into foster care in the first place because their parents have rejected them for being gay. They face physical and emotional abuse at home, and sometimes are kicked out of the house because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Returning to that setting after emancipation is dangerous for some, like Blake.
The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NLGTF/NCH) recommend a number of steps to address the LGBT-specific needs of youth who are homeless. The NLGTF/NCH note that drop-in centers, which can be connected to homeless outreach programs, are crucial to helping LGBT youth who are homeless. They provide peer-bonding, recreation, safety, public health, and youth development. The NLGTF/NCH also recommend that all agencies receiving government funding to serve homeless youth have nondiscrimination polices and be “culturally competent” in LGBT youth issues. Individual health and social service providers, too, should be trained to address the special issues facing youth, including coming out as LGBT, health and sex education, and community integration. The effect of a program geared to address his needs is evident to Marvin, who is 21 and living in transitional living program sponsored in part by the San Diego LGBT Community Center. The housing program is for youth who have been homeless, but has a special focus on LGBT youth. “I feel like people care about me here,” he said. Without a safe place to turn, though, LGBT youth who have emancipated from foster care are at high risk for homelessness. “These kids are often the ones who become homeless because they have no place they are comfortable,” saidShaun Zigler, Foster Youth Services Program manager for San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Office.
“I can’t even count how many [foster] homes or placements I was in,” said Phillip, who had been in foster care since he was seven years old. “I think it was between 20 and 25. Age seven to 13 was really rough,” he told us. Problems in children’s lives can be compounded when children are moved from one foster care setting to another. Moving from one foster placement to another can mean the loss not only of connections with the foster family but also neighborhood friends, school mates, and teachers. For a child or youth whose life has already included separation from parents, losing contact with others is particularly harmful. Research has found that multiple placements are harmful to children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “the emotional consequences of multiple placements or disruptions are likely to be harmful at any age.... [M]ultiple moves while in foster care (with the attendant disruption and uncertainty) can be deleterious to the young child’s brain growth, mental development, and psychological adjustment.” Repeatedly the young people interviewed for this report described shutting down emotionally because of the trauma of moving from place to place “I was little when I realized, these aren’t my people ... they say they love you, but it’s all talk,” Matt H. said, describing his life in 10 group homes and multiple foster family placements before that. “It’s all for the money. As soon as I did something bad, I was out of there.” The experience has colored his ability to form relationships: “To this day I don’t trust people,” he said. Lestat S. was in three foster homes and seven group homes. He told us, “I’ve had more than my fair share of broken hearts ... getting close ... and then being ripped away. You cry your eyes out at night because you miss them so much.” By age 18, it had taken an emotional toll.
Rhodes, the former foster youth who later worked as an emancipation worker, noted that youth in care are emotionally occupied both with the trauma they have suffered and fear over the future. “[You’re] in survival mode. You never know what’s going to happen, what’s going to be pulled out from under you next. You’re thinking about where you are going to sleep, whether you’re going to be moved again,” she said. As a result, by the time former foster youth reach early adulthood, they may be behind other teens in their readiness to live independently.
Mental Health Problems, Disabilities, and Parenting
Youth in care are more likely to perform poorly in school and have physical and mental health problems. They are at greater risk for behavioral problems, drug and alcohol use, and delinquency. By age 19, nearly half of young women in foster care have been pregnant, compared to a fifth of their peers not in foster care. Foster youth with these additional challenges may be especially likely to need extra help in navigating life on their own.
Significant numbers of children in foster care have mental health problems: researchers estimate that this is the case for between 40 and 80 percent of children who enter foster care.  Preparation of foster youth for adulthood must take into account a wide range of mental health needs. Many of the youth interviewed for this report referenced mental health problems, learning disabilities, and addictions. They spoke of depression and described suicide attempts. One admitted he was high on meth at the time of the interview; another described kicking a meth habit. Kathy Cramer of Berkeley Mental Health and the Mental Health Program Supervisor for the city of Berkeley noted that the 16- to 25-year-old age group needs special consideration in terms of how mental health needs are met:
The lack of attention for this age group, it’s been kind of hidden, in a way. It’s easy to miss if people are not making themselves known and adolescents and young adults don’t really make their needs known. In the past we’ve assumed to some degree that this age group can be served by the adult system. In fact, they need more of an out-reach approach. They’re just not going to make appointments.
For youth with disabling mental health problems, preparation for adulthood must include learning how to navigate the systems that serve people with disabilities and how to live on a limited income. Some young adults with serious mental health problems need step-by-step assistance with the most basic of tasks. Karen Grace-Kaho, the California State Foster Care Ombudsman, told us of a former foster youth who desperately needed assistance but was not able to get it until she intervened. The young man was sleeping under a freeway overpass in Los Angeles.
He’d had some contact with [an independent living program (ILP)]—in fact he had a laptop computer given to him as a part of that program—and he was sleeping with it there under the freeway. I called up the ILP coordinator and explained the situation, gave them his name and all, and the response was, “Oh yeah, we know him. He’s got mental health problems.” The ILP worker told me, “If he can come into the office with a signed rental agreement, we may be able to give him first and last month’s rent.” I said, “Maybe you didn’t hear me. He’s homeless. He’s sleeping under a freeway overpass. He’s dirty. He smells. No one is going to let him sign a rental agreement.”
Eventually Grace-Kaho was able to secure the help of a caseworker who took the young man to a motel to clean up, went with him to buy a simple set of clothes, and explored transitional living program options.
Learning and other disabilities must be taken in to account if skill building and planning for life as a young adult are to be effective. A long-time foster parent told us that in her observation, living skills classes did not meet the needs of the most vulnerable youth: “It’s really for kids who are going to college, [and they’re] going to make it anyway ... what’s needed is some vocational training for the others.” Another foster parent said, “[The programs don’t] help those who ... can’t learn to read, to write. [The programs] may look just fine, but [these kids] are the ones who end up under the bridge. They fall right through the cracks.” Additionally, for youth with disabilities, “[m]eeting those goals is only part of the picture ... additional social, academic, health, and environmental barriers must also be addressed.”
Mental health problems or disabilities are not the only special circumstances that need to be taken into account: pregnancy can disqualify a young person from a program. When Patrice M. was 20, she found out she was pregnant and received a two-day notice to leave the transitional home where she lived. The home did not allow pregnant residents. Sitting in a caseworker’s office, Patrice overheard her worker talking about her on the phone, saying, “She’s not going to find anyplace.” Patrice ended up couch-surfing and staying in a motel.
Support Beyond Age 18 is Needed
The current system of state care for foster youth, ending as
it does at age 18, results far too often and predictably in homelessness. In order to prevent these outcomes, the extension of care into the early adult years is critically necessary. As described above, the population of youth
in state care, far more than children growing up in intact families, requires special assistance on the path to adulthood. Even typically developing youth raised in families commonly continue to receive family support into their 20s; this fully corresponds to what is now known about adolescent development. Moreover, abrupt termination at 18 of what is often inadequate care can necessitate costly interventions later. States that have established routine extension of care beyond 18 have realized not only gains in well-being, but in their balance sheets as well. Finally, California must extend care to foster youth beyond the age of 18 because to avoid doing so would perpetuate a status quo that violates these youths’ civil and economic rights under international law. Only by creating a varied set of options for assistance before and after eventual emancipation can the state rectify these violations.
Young Adults Need Support and Guidance
An abrupt end to childhood does not comport with what is now known about adolescent development or the norms in the US. In a healthy family, preparation for adulthood begins early in life and, in most US families, youth are not cut off entirely at age 18.Instead families continue to provide emotional and financial support as young people move through early adulthood.
The number of 20- and 30-year-olds in the US who are completely financially independent has decreased significantly over the last century and especially since 1960. A shift has taken place: it takes more to become financially independent than it did a generation ago.
The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that just 41 percent of 26-year-olds are financially autonomous, with all their financial resources supplied by either themselves or by a spouse. In the average US family, financial assistance often continues into the early 30s. Although there are substantial differences in the amount of material support that young adults receive from families, on average parents provide roughly $2,200 each year to children from ages 18 to 34 (on average more in the late teens and 20’s and less in the early 30’s), for an average total amount of more than $35,000. The assistance may come in the form of housing, food, educational expenses, or direct cash assistance. In California, 45 percent of males and 43 percent of females ages 18 to 24 live with their parents. Ashley, a former foster youth spoke on a panel sponsored by UCLA’s School of Public Affairs about aging out. In response to a question asking for her thoughts on a bill to extend foster care past age 18 she said, “I think it’s really great because nobody puts their real kid out at 18. It’s being realistic.”
“Out at 18” is a Costly State Policy
State policies and practices that eject young people from state care without the tools they need to survive are not only devastating to the individual, they are also costly to society. Some US states already recognize this and extend support to foster youth beyond age 18. A University of Chicago study examining the effect of extending foster care to age 21 found that in Illinois, where the median age of exit from foster care is 21, the benefits of more time and more help are tremendous. Compared to outcomes for youth in states that do not extend care past age 18, the researchers concluded that youth remaining in care until age 21 were three times more likely to enroll in college, 65 percent less likely to be arrested, and 38 percent less likely to get pregnant as teenagers. The long-term affect for the state is significant. A report released in early 2009 found that in California, supporting former foster youth up to age 21 was likely to increase their lifetime earning potential by at least $92,000.
Other, perhaps less obvious, costs can fall to the state when young people who are not ready to care for themselves end up on the street. In particular, the cost of not addressing the special needs of former foster youth may be high. For example, Ombudsman Grace-Keho’s description of a young man living beneath the freeway underpass included: “This kid was asthmatic, and during this time he had a bad asthma attack and ended up hospitalized. Now how healthy is it for someone with asthma sleeping under a freeway pass in Los Angeles [and exposed to intense pollution]? And how long could have the state paid for his room and board with the money it spent on an emergency room visit and a week-long stay in the hospital?”
The Rights of Current and Former Foster Children under International Law
Foster Children Have a Right to Special Measures of State Protection
Every child in California is guaranteed special measures of protection and care by international law. Protections are heightened for children who have been removed from their homes and placed in state care. The state has special duties toward these children, among which is to help them prepare for adulthood. It is no exaggeration to say that all of childhood and youth is dedicated to learning to be independent. The role of the parent in this process is essential. When the state becomes the parent, it must take measures to prepare children for adulthood or it is breeching its duty to protect.
International law recognizes that children need greater protection than adults. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “[e]very child shall have ... the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.” To understand the scope of this provision, the ICCPR should be read in conjunction with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that the United States has signed but not ratified. Reflecting an almost universal consensus on children’s human rights, the convention requires states to protect children from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” The best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children.
The specific measures of protection are left somewhat to each state’s discretion. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, and to which each signatory country must regularly make reports on adherence to its provisions, articulates that each state must “determine [its measures of protection] in light of the protection needs of children ... within its jurisdiction.” Despite this wide latitude, it is clear that protection of children means more than just safety, more than adequate food. The preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child speaks directly to the importance of preparation for adulthood, stating that “the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society.” The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also notes “with concern” that states “have not given sufficient attention to the specific concerns of adolescents as rights holders and to promoting their health and development.” The Committee describes states’ obligations to include ensuring that adolescents have “access to information that is essential for their health and development” and “creat[ing] a safe and supportive environment for adolescents including within their family, in schools, in all types of institutions in which they may live, within their workplace and/or in the society at large.”
Children outside of their family environment are among those singled out as entitled to special care and protection from the state. The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that:
A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State.
The Human Rights Committee lays out the expectation that states’ reports “should provide information on the special measures of protection adopted to protect children who are abandoned or deprived of their family environment in order to enable them to develop in conditions that most closely resemble those characterizing the family environment.”
All People Have a Right to Adequate Housing
Many international treaties and documents enunciate a right to adequate housing for all people. The first was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
[E]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which the US has signed but not ratified, codifies the right and requires ratifying states to strive to ensure that all their residents have adequate housing, recognizing “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions." The ICESCR also requires states parties to take "appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right."
If the right to housing means anything, it means that one should not have to be homeless. It also means, at a minimum, that governments should avoid policies and practices that predictably increase homelessness. Rajindar Sachar, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has noted that governments infringe that right if they adopt policies that "result in homelessness, greater levels of inadequate housing, [or] the inability of persons to pay for housing[.]" The government’s failure to prepare children in care for adulthood directly increases the incidence of homelessness among emancipated youth.
A Variety of Post-Emancipation Options is Needed
Foster youth, just like their peers in typical homes, need a variety
of options as they transition into adults. Some need more time at home before moving out on their own: Tayana said she was not ready to leave her foster home when she turned 18 and probably would have chosen to stay with her foster mother. Others need periodic stays: Melissa said she needed a place she could go on breaks from college. Warren had a job when he was kicked out of his group home, and said he could have paid a small amount of rent. Ayana had a daughter and needed a place that was child-friendly. Oceania said she needed a safe place to stay while she applied for SSI disability coverage, and someone to help her learn to balance navigating that disability benefits system, dealing with her mental health issues, and starting community college. Michael needed a program that included drug treatment. The many youth who return to their birth families when they age out need help finding family members and determining who they might turn to.
The question is not just what happens when young people turn 18. Some want nothing more than to leave the foster care system behind on their 18th birthday, but need the option of returning to some type of supportive setting in a crisis. Young people need back up plans as they navigate through early adulthood and face the inevitable mistakes that are a part of learning. Murray L. said he passed up a chance to enter into a transitional living program when he left care: “I regret [that decision, but] I wanted to be with my family. I thought they wanted me with them but I got kicked out.” Anya entered a transitional living home, but was kicked out for breaking the rules and had nowhere to go. Junior J. had a part-time job at a Safeway grocery store when he emancipated, but four months later he had lost it and had no income. Each of them needed a safety net to catch them and keep them from becoming homeless when things did not go as planned.
Transitional living programs are the best option for some. However, requirements for programs need to be adapted to special needs. For example, a program requirement that an applicant hold a job may unfairly exclude those who are unable to do so. While maintaining a job is an obvious objective for most adults, some of those interviewed appeared to have significant learning disabilities or to be experiencing mental health problems to such a degree that immediate entry into the work world and steady employment seemed improbable. One young woman interviewed appeared, at minimum, to be quite socially immature and depressed. She had never held a job before emancipating. She told the researcher that she did not even apply to a local transitional living program because she thought she would not be able to get a job. Another young woman was obviously and significantly cognitively impaired: in describing her graduation day for the researcher, she could not count the number of hours between her high school graduation and the time that same afternoon that her social worker came to drive her to a temporary shelter. At the time of the interview, she was living in a homeless shelter, hoping to get into a transitional living program. She did not have the requisite job for admittance, however, and could not articulate a plan to get a job. Cheryl Alexander, supervisor of the Emancipation Services Program of Orange County Social Services Agency said: “Our kids want to go to school, they want to do right in our communities. But when you’re worried about where you’re going to lay your head every night ... you can’t do everything.”
When he turned 18, adulthood came as an abrupt announcement for Warren. “The guy at [my] group home told me on a Wednesday that I needed to get out by Saturday.” With that, 18-year-old Warren was tossed out of foster care. “I tried to tell him that I had no place to go, but he told me that I couldn’t stay there ... I asked, ‘Couldn’t I [just] stay in the garage?’” The answer was no. Warren packed his possessions into his car and left.
He was homeless for two years. “I’d park [my car] different places and sleep. Sometimes I would stay at friends’ houses,” he said. Remarkably, he continued to work toward his high school diploma and regularly attended classes. “I didn’t want to give up. My motivation was to be better. I was trying to show people that I could do things that they didn’t think I could do.” He worked in a restaurant and used the money to pay for his car. It’s a time that he doesn’t like to think about: “I got to a point where I was so depressed, so frustrated, I felt like killing myself.”
The chance for a place to live and the emotional support to make it as a young adult came when he was twenty. “I was so desperate. I don’t know how I heard about [a transitional living program] ... but I did, and somehow I got an application and brought it over to their office. I thought I would never hear back from them.” He did, and after a rigorous acceptance process, he was off the streets and into an apartment with a roommate.
The program was not an easy ride—at one point he lost his job and did not have enough money to pay both rent and his car payment. He chose the car. “I thought to myself, I gotta keep this car. If everything goes wrong, I can sleep in my car.” Not being able to pay rent jeopardized his placement in the program, but instead of booting him, a counselor worked with him to re-focus priorities and find another job.
Those kind of second chances are part of what helped him become the successful independent adult he is today. Warren also points to the relationships built in the program. “The [staff at the transitional living program] let me know they were here for me, they let me know that they knew I was trying to do something in my life and they supported me in it. It seems like they really care about what happens to you. And, when bad things happened—like when I lost that job, they would make sure that I was out there looking for another job. They always have some ideas about work.” He spent 18 months at the program.
Living on his own in Long Beach, Warren said he was working and going to school. For the two years before up until we spoke with him, he had worked with a company that maintained a number of apartment buildings across the county. With shy pride he clicked off the skills he is mastering, “I’ve learned carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work.” Walking through an apartment unit, he showed the interviewer perfectly mitered crown molding, expert drywall work and professional painting he’d done himself. “See that air conditioning unit? I installed it.”
Warren’s boss, Tony Suarez, said he thought highly of him: “In the beginning I was kind of surprised about what he’s been through, the problems he’s had ... But he’s been great. He likes to be there for people.” The relationship has been a meaningful one for both. Mr. Suarez described a call he got from Warren last Christmas. “[He said] thank you for everything I’d done for him. He told me that I was like a big brother to him—he really meant it. No one had ever told me something like that—It made me feel so great. I’m on my own too, but I have parents—it’s just different when you don’t have anyone.”
In addition to working full-time, Warren was attending community college. “Right now I am taking care of my general education requirements. I hope that by the middle of this year I’ll be able to go full-time. I’d like to work with kids. I’m thinking about becoming a teacher or a child psychologist. I’m focusing on finding something that I know I’ll be good at.”
On the weekends he played volleyball and was also a member of a car club. “It’s a Mustang owners’ club. We meet for barbeques and stuff. I do some mechanical work on cars, I help people out with their cars and fix things.”
Friends would tell him it is time to start a family. He disagreed. “I have things I want to do before I have kids. I’d like to travel, go to different places in the world. But when I do have kids, I think I’ll adopt. I think about how there are so many kids out there without a mom or a dad.”
It was hard to imagine this young man living in a car. His journey from homelessness to a stable life of work, school, and weekends playing volleyball happened because simple needs were met: A place to live, emotional support, second chances, and relationships with people who care. Those factors gave him what he needed. Warren said he was not stopping. He dreamed about traveling, plans for future careers, and family options. He summed up his life, “I want to see how far I can go.”
Photo: Warren. © 2007 Patricia Williams
Plowing through eight placements in less than five years, Anya thought leaving foster care was like the end of a bad dream. Instead, what came next was a real nightmare. “I was homeless for two and a half years, living in motels and in my car ... At one point I was living in my car ... in the winter. I was freezing with my baby there with me ... She’d sleep sitting up in her car seat. “
Anya recalls one desperate night trying to get to a homeless shelter in Orange County. Driving along I-5, she tensely watched the gas gauge move to empty. “I didn’t think we would make it to the shelter.” In the back seat her three-year-old daughter squealed with joy as they passed Disneyland’s fireworks lighting the sky next to the freeway. They made it to the shelter, but it was overcrowded, with sleeping mats jammed together on the floor inside, and even the yard filled with people sleeping outside. Anya felt safer parking the car in the alley and staying there with her child. Sitting behind the steering wheel, she said, she cried all night. She thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
She had tried a number of programs but with no luck. Even reaching them was difficult. “Most places you call don’t answer the phone—it’s just a message or no one picks up.” The next day she had some luck. “When an actual person picked up the phone, I couldn’t talk, I just cried into the phone.” Ultimately she was accepted into a transitional living program. “I remember [the call saying that] I got in [to the program] ... my heart raced. I said, ‘Are you kidding? Are you kidding?!’”
“December 9th [was] my move-in day. They asked if I needed help moving my stuff, and [laughing] well, no, I didn’t; it all fit in my car ... I got there, and they took me to my apartment and I went in and I just sat on the bed. I was so happy to have a room ... I was so happy I couldn’t move for an hour. I just sat there. Finally, after everything, I had a place I could stay.”
Anya threw herself in to working and going to school. She got a job with a mortgage company and worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then drove over an hour to a community college and took night classes until 10. “I was never at home, I never saw [my daughter], because I was so scared about being homeless again. I missed out on the program here [at the transitional living program.]” Her counselor called her in for a heart-to-heart. “She said, ‘You’re disappointing me,’ and let me know I needed to participate in the program. I didn’t realize she didn’t want me to just work; she wanted me to leave [the program] with connections, with a family, because that is what I was missing.” The counselor also helped Anya focus on her priorities. “She told me, ‘You know you are taking time away from your daughter.’ I told her, ‘No, I am doing all of this for her!’ She told me that I am missing special time with her and I won’t be able to make it up later—and I realized she was right, I couldn’t keep working and going to school the way I was.” Anya quit work but with the help of program staff was able to secure a paying internship. “I work in the Motion Picture Development Finance Department at Paramount.” There she gained a mentor who introduced her to accounting.
When we spoke with her, Anya attended school full-time and worked two days a week. There were dance classes for her daughter on Saturdays. “It’s the best situation ever,” she says. “My hope is to go to a four-year college this year or the following year. I’m thinking about USC, UCLA, or Cal State Northridge. But wherever I go, I’m going to go—I’m going to a four-year college to get my degree. I’m really focused [on getting] through school.” Others have recognized her efforts and how far she has come: she was awarded a scholarship.
You do not have to spend much time with Anya to get a sense of her determination. She is energetic, exudes confidence and laughs easily. She is the picture of optimistic young adulthood. What separates her from the young person who was homeless for two-and-a-half years? Anya’s answer is the guidance and supportive relationships she has at her transitional living program. She gives a clear example: “I used to always run out of gas. Here, at this program they don’t yell at you, and they don’t just give you money for gas. The counselor helps me figure out how to budget, so next time I’ll have the money for gas and not run out. It makes me feel like here there are people who really care about me.”
When she thinks about the future, she’s clear. “My dream for where I will be in 10 years? I’ll be an accountant. I’ll have my own office; my name will be on the door. I’ll have an intern and I’ll be helping that person. Most importantly I will be helping others. People tell me now, ‘You’re going to be successful, you’re going to be doing something big.’ I hear that and I think, ‘Yes, I am.’”
Photo: Anya. © 2007 Patricia Williams
1. Extend support for youth in foster care beyond age 18.
Transition to adulthood should be more gradual than it currently is for youth in foster care. Few 18-year-olds are ready to be completely independent. Financial support, adult connection, shelter, and other safety nets should be provided in a graduated way into the early 20s for youth who need it. Youth who choose to leave state care at age 18 should have opportunities to return on the basis of need. We recommend:
To the Governor and Members of the State Legislature
- Support state legislation that creates
multiple options of support past age 18 for youth, including:
- allowing all former foster youth to stay in a current foster care placement for a period of time past age 18, regardless of their high school graduation or other status;
- creating a diverse spectrum of other options for housing, support, and guidance; and
- developing transitional housing and other programs that meet the needs of a wider spectrum of young adults, including those with mental health needs, learning disabilities, and pregnant and parenting youth.
- Increase the availability across the state of transitional living programs so that every youth leaving state care who needs housing will have it.
- Provide the right to return to state care for youth who chose to leave at age 18 but who later find that they need support and help in early adulthood.
To Judges, Attorneys, and Child Advocates
- Use existing laws to extend jurisdiction after age 18 in appropriate cases.
- Create and offer youth alternatives to traditional foster care in extended jurisdiction.
To County Child Welfare Agencies and Social Workers
- Prioritize resources for proven transitional living programs that provide meaningful life skills acquisition, guidance to youth traversing early adulthood, and strong bonds with competent, caring adults.
- Set standards for and regulate adherence by transitional living programs and foster placements in the provision of on-going guidance, emotional support, and the opportunity to learn living skills.
To the Federal Government
- The US Department of Health and Human Services should promulgate regulations for the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008that permit for the widest possible spectrum of independent living programs.
- The US Department of Health and Human Services should revise the eligibility requirements under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 to broadly interpret the eligibility of youth who have mental or emotional problems for medical waivers that would permit them to enter transitional living programs when they cannot meet program requirements for employment or school.
2. Guarantee that youth have useful emancipation plans.
Legally-mandated “transitional independent living plans,” which child welfare agencies are required to develop for each youth’s emancipation, should incorporate concrete arrangements for housing, income, connection to others, and medical coverage. We recommend:
To the Governor and State Legislature
- Ensure that existing lawsrequiring transitional living plans are being implemented and are effective.
To Judges, Attorneys, and Child Advocates
- Inquire and follow up at regular intervals on the status of plans for a youth’s emancipation.
- Identify children and youth in foster care who have special needs, ensure that their post-emancipation plans address those needs, and take steps to ensure their needs are met.
To County Child Welfare Agencies and Social Workers
- Ensure that every youth emancipating has a place to live, a source of income, and health coverage prior to emancipation.
- Guarantee that every youth leaving care has an independent living coordinator and knows how to reach that person.
- Evaluate systems and procedures to ensure that the perspectives of children and youth are incorporated in planning and assist them in identifying their goals.
- Work closely with youth to complete the Independent Living Plan, beginning in early adolescence and continuing until the youth leaves care; involve people who care about the youth and can assist him or her in developing the plan; and allow sufficient time to discuss and take action on the youth’s goals.
- Provide more information about services, programs, and support that exist post-emancipation.
3. Create real opportunities to develop skills for independence.
Everyday life skills should be taught in foster care at an earlier age and not just in a classroom setting. Youth should be provided opportunities throughout adolescence to practice tasks and skills for adulthood.
To the Governor and State Legislature
- Review state laws and regulations, and support regulatory changes, or if necessary, legislation so that youth in foster care are not living in overly restrictive and institutionalized settings that limit opportunities for experiential learning.
- Support regulatory or legislative changes so that foster parents, group home workers, and others caring for adolescents must create opportunities to learn adult living skills in the home.
To Judges, Attorneys, and Child Advocates
- In preparation for and during court hearings, ask specifically about the types of opportunities individual youth in state care will receive for learning adult living skills, and follow up with court investigations or orders to ensure youth are getting the opportunities needed.
To County Child Welfare Agencies and Social Workers
- Assess current skill-building programs and preparation for transition to adulthood policies and outcomes for youth. Assessments should rely on, among other things, information from the National Youth in Transition Database and input from former foster youth and other experts.
- Train foster parents, group home workers, and others caring for adolescents on adolescent development and the basic skills needed for youth to prepare for adulthood; set standards for foster parents, group home workers, and others caring for adolescents holding caretakers responsible in part for passing on adult living skills and providing in-home skills acquisition.
- Prioritize in training and standards experiential learning of adult skills and opportunities to learn.
To Foster Parents, Group Home Workers, Guardians, and Others Caring for Children in Foster Care
- Ensure that young people have ongoing opportunities to participate in activities that promote adult skills.
- Prepare adolescents for adulthood and ask for support from the county welfare agency.
- Seek training in adolescent development and creative ways to impart living skills.
4. Help establish relationships that extend beyond emancipation.
To prepare youth in foster care for adulthood, the state should help them establish relationships with people who can offer guidance and support through early adulthood. We recommend:
To the Governor and State Legislature
- Ensure that existing laws supporting long-term relationships for children and youth in foster care, such as family-finding, long-term mentoring, and adoption of older youth, are being implemented.
To Judges, Attorneys, and Child Advocates
- Ensure through court orders and follow-up that every child and youth has connections with adults who are likely be in his or her life after leaving foster care.
To County Child Welfare Agencies and Social Workers
- Prioritize resources to ensure that every child in state care establishes connections with adults who will be available to him or her after emancipation from care.
- Create systems to contact and maintain connection with extended family and non-family members who may not be able to house a child but could commit to be in a child’s life in ways that build emotional support and ties to the community.
To Foster Parents, Group Home Workers, Guardians, and Others Caring for Children in Foster Care
- Prioritize the creation of opportunities for children and youth to establish long-term, caring relationships.
- Change group home policies and procedures so that children and youth have more access to people in the community and opportunities to pursue typical adolescent activities that build connections to adults and other youth outside of the system.
This research is based primarily on 63 interviews of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 who were former foster children. Interviews took place in 2006 through 2010. Most of the interviewees were homeless at the time of the interview; others had been recently homeless. The definition of “homeless” used here is the one given in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act:
The term “homeless children and youth”
(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 103(a)(1)); and(B) includes—
(i) children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement;
(ii) children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (within the meaning of section 103(a)(2)(C));
(iii) children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and
(iv) migratory children.
Youth interviewed for this report said they slept in cars, on the streets, in parks, under bridges, in abandoned buildings, temporarily in motels, in homeless shelters, in the homes of friends (“couch surfing”), living temporarily with people they did not trust, with people paying them for sex, and in tents.
The interviewees came from geographically diverse locations across California. While not specifically asked to list where they had grown up, interviewees sometimes referred to towns and cities where they lived in foster care. These included Anaheim, Apple Valley, Bakersfield, Berkeley, Cabrillo, Carson, Citrus Grove, Compton, Covelo-Round Valley, Eureka, Fresno, Fort Bragg, Hayworth, Hollywood, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Ontario, Orland, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Palo Verdes, Paris, Pasadena, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Rosemead, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Rosa, Tujunga, Ukiah, Upland, Victorville, Whittier, and Yucaipa. This is not a full list. Some interviewees did not say where they had lived; others gave the names of group homes instead of towns. It was not uncommon for an interviewee to state that he or she could not remember all the places he or she had lived in foster care. All youth interviewees had been in foster care; some had also been in the juvenile justice systems and under the jurisdiction of the probation department.
Interviewees were found through several methods. In some cases, the researcher made an announcement at a location where homeless youth were gathered, such as in a dayroom of a drop-in center or at a meeting for residents at a shelter. Individuals would come forward and sign up to be interviewed. In other cases staff at a shelter suggested specific individuals to be interviewed because they were known to have been in foster care and were currently homeless. In one case a person who was allowing a homeless youth to sleep on her floor at home called Human Rights Watch. A few contacted our offices after seeing a request posted on the California Youth Connection listserv.
Nearly all interviews of youth were face-to-face. Interviews were held in a private location such as an office, or a place where others could not hear the conversation. Interviews took place in homeless shelters, drop-in centers, transitional living houses, on the streets of Hollywood, and in a homeless encampment along a river about a mile from the State capitol building.
Interviews lasted from around 30 minutes to three hours and were conducted in a narrative style. The researcher described the focus of the research and explained the measures that would be used to maintain confidentiality. General, open-ended questions were asked. The researcher took careful notes. In some cases the researcher read back quotes to the interviewee to ensure exact wording.
Interviewees were given the option to have their interviews used directly or indirectly, with the latter meaning that their exact quotes would not be used so that their identity would be completely shielded. All interviewees chose to have their information used directly. Pseudonyms were used because of the personal nature of youths’ experiences, their young age at the time of the interview, and the fact that many were in crisis at the time and may not have been in a position to adequately analyze the consequences of revealing private information to a wide audience. Some interviewees chose their own pseudonyms; for others, the researcher chose a pseudonym. In some cases, in addition to the use of pseudonyms, other identifying factors such as gender, geography, age, the existence of children, siblings or the specific facts of an incident are left out in order to further conceal the individual’s identity. This was done when the facts of a situation were particularly personal or potentially endangering. For example, particular care has been taken to shield the identity of an interviewee who described having been raped as a child.
Four Indicators of Minimal Readiness for Independence
While the interviews were generally narrative in nature, the researcher asked four specific questions of each individual. These questions were chosen as indicators of the most minimal preparation for adulthood and readiness for independence. The four questions were:
- When you left foster care did you have a source of income?
- When you left foster care did you have medical coverage?
- When you left foster care did you have a high school diploma?
- When you left foster care did you have an adult you could turn to if you were in some kind of crisis, for example, needing a ride to the doctor if you were very sick?
All interviews were deeply personal. Interviewees were asked to talk about experiences of trauma, betrayal, and abandonment by family and the system. The fact of their homelessness was an obvious source of shame for many, and some even blamed themselves for being in foster care, such as, “I was a stubborn child, that’s why no one wanted me.”
Many interviewees expressed that even though the topics were difficult to discuss, they wanted to talk about their experiences because they wanted to help change things for children who come up in the system after them. Mason B. put it this way: “I’m down for any cause to help improve things. Even if I’m not going to see help for me, maybe it will help others coming along.”
This report was written and researched by Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate, Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Kennji Kizuka and Kyle Knight, associates for Children’s Rights Division, provided significant research, administrative, and other help. Ruchika Budhraja, an intern with Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles, provided substantial help in research and other support for the report.
We thank the many young people who shared their experiences for this report.
We are grateful for the help of Heather Carmichael, associate executive director for My Friend’s Place; Sharon Hawkins -Leyden, director of the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel; Jody Stein, J.D.; Patty Williams, photographer; Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children; and Shaun Zigler foster youth services program manager for San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and Los Angeles Human Rights Watch interns Christine Back, Christine Talbo, and Christina Yang. The California Human Rights Watch staff, including Hava Manasse, Libby Marsh, Caitlin McAdam, and Tiffany Siart, provided other invaluable help.
In addition, Heather Carmichael; Camille Joseph, of the Los Angeles Human Rights Watch office; Miriam Krinsky, lecturer, UCLA School of Public Affairs and member, ABA Youth at Risk Advisory Council; Natalie Leimkuhler; Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation; Sabina Mayo-Smith, MSW; Professor Wendy Smith Meyer; and Jennifer Rodriguez, staff attorney at the Youth Law Center all reviewed and commented on the manuscript.
Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director, and Lois Whitman, director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch edited the report. David Fathi, director of the US Program and Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program of Human Rights Watch reviewed the report. Cassandra Cavanaugh, consultant to the Program office, Andrew Mawson, deputy program director, and Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor, provided legal and program review.
Production assistance was provided by Kyle Knight; Anna Lopriore, creative manager; Grace Choi, publications director and Fitzroy Hepkins, mail manager.