On the edge - Page 2

44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: For foster youth, turning 18 means growing up fast

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Kirsten Johnson-Bell, 18, said she was in 20 different foster care placements since 2007
PHOTO BY SARAH PHELAN

Most youth in foster care aren't housed continuously with a single caregiver, but bounce from place to place, making it tough to form long-lasting relationships. "It's a fairly rare experience that youth stay in one home, and that means moving schools and moving friends," notes Rachel Antrobus, executive director of Transitional Age Youth San Francisco (TAY SF), a city-funded nonprofit. Many foster kids take medication for behavioral problems, and it's common for them to experience emotional upheaval.

"It's practically inevitable that they're going to have long-term emotional impacts," Antrobus said, noting many bear the long-term scars of abuse, neglect, or forced separation from their families for some other reason. "It's a much longer road, and they have to do it with deeper wounds. Even the kids that are the most together ... will likely experience some really dark places in their 20s."

In San Francisco, there are 1,400 young people in the foster care system, and all but about 500 are in placements outside the city. Lynette Davis, who turned 18 this year, moved from San Francisco to Oakland when she first entered foster care in the eighth grade. Davis acknowledges that she was one of the lucky ones. Rather than move in with a stranger, she went to live with her godmother and remained there until her 18th birthday.

Davis is now living with her boyfriend and his family in Oakland — and the household was in the process of moving when the Guardian spoke with her. Her godmother offered to continue housing her after she turned 18, Davis noted. "But she's got her own kids. I felt like I should be able to go off and do my own thing." The requirement in either housing situation is that she must work, go to school, or both, Davis said. She's attending classes at Oakland's Merritt College. In the meantime, she's mired in the frustrating exercise of applying for job after job.

"It's been pretty ridiculous," Davis said of her fruitless job hunt. "Sometimes it makes me want to stop and give up. But as long as you've got people around you who care about you, it's okay."

Many foster kids who didn't have the support network that Davis did are up against alarmingly high stakes as they age out. "Some people are mothers and they have to pay rent and are looking for more than two jobs," she said. Asked what she thought were the greatest challenges facing foster youth in San Francisco, she mentioned poverty, gangs, and a lack of job opportunities.

"To be successful, you have to be financially stable," she said. "With some youth, that's hard. They don't have jobs, or they can't get jobs. They want to find an easy way out." That's when they become more susceptible to gangs or drugs, she said. Davis says she was a "rebellious youth" at a younger age, but now she's focused on her goal of obtaining a degree in psychology so that one day she can go into counseling. When she became a member of California Youth Connections, which aids youth with transitional support, she met other foster youth and realized she could really have an impact.

HELP OR HARM?

The difference between ages 18 and 21 can be critical, so foster youth advocates throughout the state cheered Sept. 30 when AB12, California's Fostering Connections to Success Act, was signed into law. It allows California to make use of federal matching funds to provide transitional support for qualifying foster youth until age 21. It also authorizes the state to take advantage of a federal subsidy for an existing guardianship program for relatives of foster youth who want to become caregivers. Many foster youth advocates have thrown support behind the kin caregiver model — it can be less traumatic for youth to move in with a grandparent than being suddenly dropped into a strange place.

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