For most teenagers, turning 18 might mean being allowed to vote, or owning a credit card. For youth in the foster care system in California, turning 18 means an end to government support, and often homelessness. The problem is so great in California that 40% of people living in homeless shelters are former foster care youth.
Changing the age of emancipation out of the foster care system from 18 to 21 is just one of the many recommendations put forth this month by the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. Other recommendations include "reduc[ing] the disproportionate number of African-American and American Indians in the Child welfare system" as well as making sure "children and parents have an opportunity to be present and heard in court”.
Bill AB12 is now in the California Senate and seeks to extend the age of emancipation in the state. Proponents of the bill, which is endorsed by the Blue Ribbon Commission, believe that federal funding could provide the state with up to $70 million dollars a year in order to continue helping foster youth past age 18.
Lanette Scott aged out of foster care seven years ago, but still remembers how difficult the adjustment was. "My college didn't understand that during breaks I didn't have a family to go back to. That made it a struggle to finish school. I had to petition for them to let me stay on campus during vacations."
Although she had almost no resources, Scott was ahead of most emancipated foster care youth. For most in foster care, turning 18 is the end of a different era: an end to having a guaranteed place to stay and meals to eat. According to a 2007 report by the Children's Advocacy Institute, 65% of foster care youth emancipate without a place to live, which could be part of why less than 3% make it to college.
"Honestly, if I had been forced to sign out of care at 18 the probability of me attending college would have been slim to none," said Te-Li Shu, a student at Stony Brook University. "I would be too busy trying to make ends meet and living life pay check to pay check".
Te-Li Shu is a 20-year-old student who is still part of the foster care system. Because she is a New York resident, she is allowed to remain part of the foster care system until her 21st birthday.
Shu is provided a home during school breaks, but says she feels her foster parents resent her for it. Because the system is paying for her room and board at college, her foster family is only paid for the days she is home on break, but is obligated to keep a bed open for her year round. “The payment per day when I stay on breaks is 7 dollars a day...it's upsetting for them not to be making a profit," Shu Said.
Shu entered the system with her sister as a child, and has lived in 4 foster care homes since. Shu says she often felt like a burden, with foster parents making comments such as "Foster care is foster care" and "You don't eat much, do you?”
Shu feels its social workers who need to be more vigorous in order to ensure abuses of foster parents don't occur. "I kept quiet about inhumane conditions in foster care as a kid", Shu said. "That could have been prevented if the social worker had done a detailed check with the foster parent more than once a month."
Adrianne Fiala is a family advocate who works in Hayward, California. As a social worker herself, Fiala knows the job is anything but easy. "I think it's really hard to be a social worker in such a standardized system", Fiala said. "You're under a lot of pressure to make sure kids are safe, and many of the best social workers eventually burn out."
According to the Blue Ribbon Commission's report, it's not just social workers, but the courts themselves that are overburdened. In some counties, dependency court attorney’s caseloads exceed 500, with judges carrying an average of 1,000 cases. Because the system is so overburdened, the average hearing that decides a child's future lasts an average of 10 to 15 minutes.
Fiala contends that the system is so overloaded because there is a readiness to remove children from their homes before first attempting family counseling.
"Let's say you remove a child because their parent calls them a monster. The only way to really move on from that [type of abuse] is therapy, not to shield the child from their parent, because to separate kids from their families often means more problems in the future."
As someone who’s exited the system, Lanette Scott agrees that more emphasis needs to be placed on helping kids stay with their families.
"I think we need to get back to the original intent of what the dependency system is for," Scott said. "It's supposed to be a temporary system for parents to get stabilized and then for the kids to go back home. It's not a system designed for the state to become the parents."
Although Shu critiques system she’s still dependent on, she places the largest responsibility on herself.
"Not knowing where I might be tomorrow is the biggest ongoing fear that numbs me. The biggest challenge for me is believing and having faith in myself," Shu said. "Listening to my own voice is the greatest obstacle living in a system with little supervision or control over my own life."