When Terrick Bakhit turned 18 while incarcerated in a juvenile correction facility, the foster care system that had watched over him for the previous five years abruptly cut him off.
On June 13, 2012, Bakhit emerged from San Diego County’s Camp Barrett homeless and broke.
“After being locked up for 11 months I felt free, but in the wrong way,” said Bakhit, who was left to fend for himself on the streets of downtown San Diego. “I slept in the rain. I slept on the street. No roof. No house. No nothing. I was stealing food.”
California state law ensures that youths who turn 18 in foster care are eligible for support up to the age of 21 if they choose, to help the transition into adulthood and self-sufficiency. But a small percentage of foster youth can become ineligible for extended benefits if they happen to turn 18 inside a correctional facility without a foster care placement order waiting for them on release.
“If you are incarcerated and don’t have a placement still intact on your 18th birthday, you can’t get benefits,” said Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation, referring to to the benefit foster youth can get after extended foster care benefits.
The problem seems to be rooted in the varying interpretations of state law among counties and the lack of inter-agency communication. Because of the confusion, kids like Bakhit struggle to make ends meet while eligible foster youth continue to receive benefits.
What happened to Bakhit isn’t a common occurrence, according to San Diego County Probation Director Lisa Sawin. She said probation oversees 200 youth in out-of-home placements, all of whom are eligible for extended foster care benefits under Assembly Bill 12, the state legislation that extends foster care benefits for California.
Melanie Delgado, a staff lawyer at Children’s Advocacy Institute in San Diego, also said that few foster youth are being cut off from extended benefits, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning.
“This shouldn’t happen to anyone. It defeats the purpose of AB 12,” said Delgado. “It is for kids like [Bakhit] that AB 12 was created. Instead, they are taking some of the most vulnerable foster youth and putting them out on the street.”
Bakhit was 11 when he and his two brothers entered foster care in May 2006 after running away from an abusive home. Bakhit was separated from his brothers and bounced around foster homes before ending up in a group home. Bakhit said he had a bad temper and often acted out.
At 17, he stole the group home’s van. The joy ride didn’t last long. Three minutes in, police pulled him over for speeding, and took Bakhit back home. He assumed all was forgiven.
“I slept in my own bed that night and woke up to Escondido police,” Bakhit said.
He spent the next 11 months in San Diego County juvenile correction facilities. Bakhit was told that he wasn’t eligible for extended foster care benefits because he turned 18 inside Camp Barrett, a correctional facility, and the county’s child welfare services agency had not established a plan for him after release.
If a youth is not in a sanctioned foster care placement on the exact day he or she turns 18 and there is no “waiting placement” on the release, they are not eligible for extended foster care under AB 12.
In Bakhit’s case, he could have been eligible if released 24 days prior.
“If he would have been released 24 days prior he would be getting benefits. Just 24 days screwed him over,” said Bakhit’s brother, Joseph. “He spent his time in the foster care system. It wasn’t like Terrick only spent a year or something in the system; he spent five years in foster care.”
It is important for involved parties to keep in mind when a foster youth is entering the juvenile justice system around their 18th birthday because “the stakes can be quite high,” said Lemley, adding that this is especially true for foster youth in group homes.
Probation is tasked with protecting the community by matching the needs of the juvenile with public safety, said Sawin of San Diego’s probation department, adding that the typical youth at Camp Barrett is over 16 and has either committed serious offenses or is a chronic offender.
Bakhit was homeless, jobless and hungry for about a year, until a family friend let him live rent-free in a spare bedroom, which he shares with one of his brothers.
Even if a foster youth is ineligible for AB 12, the county’s child welfare agency offers other services. San Diego Child Welfare Services Executive Assistant Connie Cain told The Chronicle of Social Change that foster youth ineligible for AB 12 can draw upon Medi-Cal benefits and the Transition Age Youth (TAY) Academy, which offers counseling, peer support and help finding jobs.
Foster youth over 18 might be eligible for case management and transitional housing programs, Cain added.
The state provides eligible foster youth with structured transitional housing with allowances paid for food, utilities and other necessities. The housing program also sets aside a smaller percentage of available housing for all youth in need up to age 24. Bakhit tried several times, he said, to get these services but was denied repeatedly.
Joseph Bakhit, 18, who is eligible to get extended care foster benefits, has gone down a starkly different path than his older brother Terrick. Having just finished his first year at University of California-Berkeley, pursing a double major in peace and conflict and art, he is taking full advantage of the benefits his brother never got.
He is one of Terrick’s biggest advocates, calling social workers looking for help. None helped though, said Joseph, adding that they all said that Terrick was “basically, a lost cause.”
Now 20, Terrick Bakhit is unemployed and struggling financially in Spring Valley, a suburb east of San Diego. He has a roof over his head, and the only public assistance the former foster youth now receives is CalFresh, the state’s version of food stamps. Bakhit said he plans to get his license and a car soon in the hopes of expanding his search for work.