By Lauren Gonzalves
Thousands of California foster youth are choosing to remain in the hands of the foster care system past their eighteenth birthdays. They are hoping to make use of the newly extended access to housing, funding, and support made possible by the passage of Assembly Bill 12 in 2010, but the implementation, which commenced in 2012, is proving uneven, leaving youth with limited options.
The landmark Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 offered states matching federal funds to extend foster care to age 21. California, with one eighth of the nation’s foster youth, was one of the first and most important early adopters.
While uptake has been slow in states that prolonged care before 2008, California’s transition-aged youth have been “opting in” to extended foster care in droves; more than 4,000 youth have already signed up.
In dealing with those swelling numbers, California’s foster care system and the service providers that offer housing after age 18 are running into complications, particularly around the administration of direct payments to transition-aged foster youth.
“Last year, the government decided to give us a little funding so we could have our own income to support ourselves in the new adult world that we got pushed into,” said Lisa, an 18-year-old foster youth living in San Francisco. [She asked her last name not be used].
There are a lot of prerequisites for youth like Lisa to qualify for AB12. He or she must be attending school, employed, participating in a vocational training program, or have a verifiable medical condition that limits his or her ability to work or attend school.
For those that do qualify, the new law provides a variety of traditional foster care placements while also offering two new options: Transitional Housing Program Plus Foster Care (THP+FC or more simply written, “AB12 Transitionalousing”) or a Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP).
In addition to funding a foster youth’s housing, AB12 also requires child welfare systems to help them develop a transition plan as they prepare to leave the system.
Currently, Lisa lives in a SILP. The SILPs were designed for the most resilient and independent foster youth, and come with a check of $799 each month without the higher level of services that come with AB12 Transitional Housing. This money helps her pay for food, rent, and other expenses.
But in a city like San Francisco, where the median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment recently climbed to $2,764, the check doesn’t go far.
“It’s really crazy because we only get $799 and out here, the rent is so high that the check doesn’t help us cover the rent so a lot of us just stay with friends, collect the check, and that’s how people have been living,” she said.
But Lisa acknowledges that AB12 is helping her survive: “AB12 is very, very supportive. I just think that before you turn 18, they [Child Protective Services] need to have a conversation with you and see where do you want to live…a lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Mark Courtney is a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the nation’s pre-eminent scholar on transition-aged foster youth. The Midwest Study that he led, became the research basis for the passage of the federal Fostering Connections Act in 2008 and was a critical piece of the advocacy around extending foster care in the Golden State.
He, along with authors Amy Dworsky and Laura Napolitano, also of the University of Chicago, published a 2013 study examining the early implementation of California’s Fostering Connections Act. Since AB12’s passage Courtney, Dworsky, and Napolitano have been tracking the law’s application and acknowledge the concern among advocates and service providers that youth like Lisa may end up in SILPs for budget reasons.
“SILPs are less expensive because they provide limited services and supervision and more readily available because no provider must be approved or certified,” he said in the 2013 study.
On the other end of the spectrum is AB12 Transitional Housing, which is designed to provide case management, counseling, job-readiness training, living skills training, academic support, mental health services, financial planning. Eligible youth are designated a monthly payment of roughly $2,800, which goes directly to the service provider to cover rent and the wraparound services listed above.
Unity Care Group, a San Jose non-profit whose mission is to “provide quality youth and family programs for the purpose of creating healthier communities through lifelong partnerships”, was recently granted a license for 100 of these higher service placements. Unity Care is partnering with MidPen Housing, one of the nation’s largest low-income housing providers, to create several new homes for AB12 youth who qualify.
“[AB12 Transitional Housing] money goes toward a service provider and part of Unity Care’s job is to make sure those kids have a safe, healthy living environment,” said MidPen Communications Director Beth Fraker.
Branded “Project Safe Haven – Preventing Homelessness Among Transition Age Youth”, the program intends to develop “an innovative permanent, and affordable housing model that is replicable for [the transition-age youth] population.”
The program will go into effect in July, and ten apartments in San Jose will be made available for eligible AB12 youth.
“We know housing is the biggest issue, especially in the Bay Area because it’s so expensive to live here,” said Unity Care CEO André Chapman in an interview. “What you have is a region, such as the Bay Area, where folks who have resources and access and good jobs are struggling to find housing…and then you throw in that bucket all these kids who have grown up in a system that has historically failed them.”
Chapman argues that more housing options are needed for such a vulnerable and high-risk population. In 2013, more than 5,000 California youth will exit out of the foster care system predisposed to poorer across-the-board life outcomes than their peers in the general population.
For those who secure a placement with Unity Care, their next two years will be cushioned with stable housing, educational and vocational support, and regular case management. For the many youth being deferred to the SILP option, a monthly check may not be enough to ameliorate the challenges that accompany being a foster youth.
“There is no difference between a kid in a SILP and a kid in the THP+FC [AB12 transitional housing]…[the difference] is how the county decides to fund those kids,” Chapman said. He explained that more comprehensive programs are actually what AB12 was aiming to develop. “THP+FC is now the programmatic requirement that it took time for the state and county to get together and develop, the SILP was just an appetizer”.
An appetizer that is likely leaving many of California’s transition-aged foster youth, like Lisa, still hungry for stability, safe housing, and real support.
Lauren Gonzalves is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.
DISCLOSURE: Beth Fraker sits on Fostering Media Connections’ Board of Directors.