“When I emancipated out of foster care, I was very alone,” said Liberty Dycus, one of three former foster youth panelists at a forum in Oakland, Calif., about aging out of foster care. “It’s like when you’re in foster care, it’s already hard. Once it’s over, where do I go after that?” Dycus said.
In addition to former foster youth, attendees included lawyers, social workers, service providers, foster parents and members of the press. The goal of the forum was to prompt a conversation about systematic shortcomings that, according to advocates, are compounded by insufficient utilization of available federal funding streams.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a conversation like this,” said Anna Challet, one of the forum’s facilitators and the youth writing workshop director at New America Media. “Today’s panel was about this group of youth who are left to navigate things on their own.”
A major issue highlighted by the panel is the shortage of placements in the foster system for older youth who often have a history of neglect, abuse and mental health needs.
A deficiency of placements results in unstable housing situations that leave these youth vulnerable to homelessness and incarceration, said panelist Brian Blalock, founder and director of Bay Area Legal Aid’s Youth Justice Project.
“We think this is largely a forgotten subpopulation of youth, which are kids that are homeless and that are homeless predominantly because they’re fleeing some abuse, abandonment, neglect, a problematic family dynamic,” Blalock said.
“The most important thing we can do for kids is make sure they have a stable situation so that they can make their own decisions, so that they can learn and make mistakes, and that when they make mistakes, it’s not catastrophic,” Blalock said.
Blalock described how some reconfiguration of the foster care system is necessary in order to build a stronger safety net that more appropriately responds to aging foster youth.
“What we’ve seen is that it is almost impossible for youth over a certain age to get into foster care. Regardless of the number of child protective services reports, regardless of the prevalence of abuse and neglect that the young person is fleeing, they’re in the homeless shelter, they’re self-reporting and they’re calling child protective services themselves,” Blalock said. “It’s incredibly difficult for them to get into the child welfare system.”
“We have kids over 16 who can’t get into the foster care system without the help of a lawyer. If you need a lawyer to access something, the system is broken down,” Blalock said.
According to Bay Area Legal Aid, of the 270 homeless youth whom the organization represented between 2011 and 2014, over 80 percent had either previous or current probation or social services involvement.
“This means that not only are there youth that are homeless,” Blalock said, “there are also youth that are homeless that the system knew who they were, and is not responding with a home or is not responding with something that would help them become more stable.”
Although Assembly Bill 12 (AB 12) and the Affordable Care Act have improved the safety net for more than 60,000 foster care youth in California, these young people continue to face obstacles and gaps in the system that further complicate their transition into adulthood.
“We desperately need more attorneys and more social workers working on this for homeless youth. We don’t know if we’re scratching the surface or if we’re in the middle of it, but we certainly haven’t been able to reach the need yet,” Blalock said, regarding the various funding streams that have opened up under AB 12. “It takes us to make sure they get those benefits.”
Bay Area Legal Aid’s Youth Justice Project provides disadvantaged youth with holistic supports, services and legal representation. With the organization’s assistance, youth are able to access resources such as proper educational placement, mental health counseling, and economic stability through government benefits programs.
Since 2011, Bay Area Legal Aid has recovered over $7 million for 447 of the organization’s youth clientele.
“What that means on a day-to-day basis, some of those kids go from being completely homeless to having their own apartment. We can do things like foster care benefits, supplemental security income benefits, food stamps, those types of funding streams,” Blalock said.
The vast majority of these dollars come from federal funding streams attached to AB 12. These represent relatively brand new dollars earmarked for the region’s most vulnerable youth. These funding streams, however, aren’t being pursued by the agencies that could actually use them to help at-risk and homeless youth, according to Blalock.
“These kids are clearly eligible, but the systems aren’t accessing [these funds] without being nudged to do so by the youth themselves, who can become incredible advocates for themselves, or by the lawyers,” Blalock said. “We’re having to force the system to pull down money that already exists, to give that money to the kids that we’re working with in order to help them.”
Being forced to advocate for themselves is nothing new for foster youth, according to Bay Area Legal Aid’s Erin Palacious who also sat on the panel.
“What has shocked me over the course of these years has not been the stories that these young people tell,” said Palacious. “It’s usually the fact that they’ve been trying to tell it so may times to so many people for such a long time.”
“It’s not an unseen population,” Palacious said. “What it is, is we don’t see it when it’s right in front of us. Or when we do see it, we do not choose to listen.”
“We need to hold the system accountable for how it’s supposed to work, to give these youth every opportunity to be successful,” Blalock said.
Shane Downing is a San Francisco-based writer covering stories relating to homelessness, public health, and city planning. View Shane’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.