Although today I am an attorney and a proud leader in an executive role at First Place for Youth, at 18 years old, I was struggling.
I didn’t have a relationship with my parents for a time. I also had $5,000 in credit card debt by the time I was 19 because I was charging my rent and had a habit of dealing with stress by shopping and going out. I left college for a period and had a series of unhealthy relationships.
Long-term planning for me, at this age, meant figuring out what I was going to do that weekend. Fast forward a few years, and everything turned out (mostly) fine. I had time to grow up, and I managed to mature into a reasonably responsible adult.
In talking about our work, I like to remind people how hard this age is. Looking back on what it took for me to grow up, it’s important to recognize the tension that as a community and system, we tend to expect so much more from those who grew up in foster care.
Foster care ends at 18, and extended foster care, which is voluntary, lasts until age 21. During these three critical years programs like Transitional Housing Program Plus (THP-Plus) foster care can provide young people with access to services and intensive support so that they can develop skills and make progress in their education and discover their career path – something that took me more than a decade.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times published a story discussing the “uneven success” of extended foster care. As a community, we need to take a more critical look at young people who lack stable, supportive families and still have not fully achieved independence at 21.
Outside the realm of foster care, we know that most young people across the country are getting some form of support from their families throughout their 20s. There is more to the story when it comes to how we can better support transition-age youth in extended foster care.
Young people in foster care are incredibly resilient survivors and fighters. At First Place, we have high expectations of our clients, because we want them to know that they are capable of more than the dismal statistics about former foster youth suggest.
The average First Place participant in Los Angeles enters into our program about six months after turning 18. They’ve spent on average seven years in the foster care system and lived in more than six different placements. Forty percent don’t have a high school diploma. Despite their history, our clients make incredible progress. For example, about 94 percent go on to obtain their high school diploma or are pursuing it after entering First Place.
What can we do as a community to support more young people from the system to make substantial progress through this exciting and tumultuous time to ensure they achieve their dreams?
First, we need to ensure that service providers like First Place that house young people have the financial ability to secure safe and affordable housing. Currently such programs are reimbursed at the same rate regardless of location. In other words, the funds to house and provide supportive services to a youth are the same in Los Angeles County as they are in Imperial County. To ensure safe housing, we need to recognize the escalating housing crisis in our urban counties that make it difficult to secure and maintain quality housing for our young people.
Second, as a community, we need have a variety of programs for young people with different skills and experiences. At First Place for Youth, we serve youth who are parents, those still pursuing their high school diploma, and those already succeeding in college. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach – success looks different for each individual. We support each of them individually in reaching their short- and long-term goals. We need the ability hold youth accountable and help them learn from their decisions while ensuring their safety.
First Place for Youth ran a campaign last year called #wheniwas18 – asking NFL athletes and celebrities to remember what they were doing and feeling at age 18. I encourage all those involved in policy and programs for young adults coming out of foster care to check it out.
It helps put things in perspective. For many of us, young adulthood is a time to learn about ourselves and what we want to do (and especially what we don’t want to do), who we want to become, and who we want to love. It’s the same for the young people we serve every day.
Hellen Hong is the executive director of First Place for Youth in Southern California. First Place for Youth is one of the largest housing and support service providers for foster youth in Los Angeles, supporting hundreds of current and former foster youth between 18 and 24 years of age.