Blowing out the candles on your 18th birthday is a big deal: it’s the day that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.
But for some, turning 18 means something different altogether. The age at which Rhode Island children age out of foster care is 18, and what many 18-year-olds are thinking about on their 18th birthday is not what privileges they’ll receive, but those they’ll lose.
It was in 2007 that the age at which youths aged out of the foster care system was dropped from 21 to 18. The same year a program called YESS (Young adults Establishing Self-Sufficiency) was established to help transition the teens into independent life.
Last Thursday, advocates testified before Senate Finance regarding proposed cuts to the aftercare program. Governor Chafee’s 2013 budget proposal includes a 19-percent cut to the DCYF budget; a cut would directly impact the YESS program. The proposed $7.9 billion state budget would decrease the program’s $1.97 million budget by $375,000.
YESS currently serves 232 young adults, ages 18 to 21 that have aged out of the foster care system. That number would have to be cut by 46, according to Lisa Guillette, executive director of RI Foster Parents Association, which administers the program.
The program doles out $450 to each youth per month for housing and provides them with 6 to 8 hours of one-on-one case management. The rough cost is $8,200 per participant per year.
“We want [the General Assembly] to understand its cost-efficiency,” said Guillette. “It’s a really critical investment.”
Guillette said the program’s participants are more likely to stay in school or get their GED, and more participants will go on to the higher education than if they weren’t in the YESS program.
Since the program inception in 2007, 700 teens have aged out of the foster care system. Guillette said 25 percent of those children have been in the care of DCYF since they were 12 or younger.
Sarah Smith, an 18-year-old YESS participant, was temporarily removed from her home at 13 and permanently removed at 15. She said her life would be very different if she didn’t have the services of the YESS program.
Smith, who is currently studying to be a social worker at Rhode Island College, said she would be trying to look for a place to live over the summer break when school housing is closed. Before she enrolled in YESS, Smith was living on campus. Now she and her twin sister, Elyssa, share an apartment in Providence.
Smith said because of the YESS program she doesn’t have to worry about paying her rent. Instead, she can focus on saving the money she makes working at Subway. Without the YESS program, Smith said she could be homeless.
“I would be struggling to maintain housing,” she said.
If she didn’t have money for her own rent, she would have to stay with her mother or boyfriend when on-campus housing is closed, two options she said wouldn’t be ideal.
Smith said her enrollment in YESS changed her life in a way most people wouldn’t expect.
“It was always a struggle with DCYF,” she said. “Now my worker actually sees me and called me back. Before I was not supervised at all. It’s definitely refreshing.”
The program is staffed by six case managers and an administrator and requires voluntary commitment from participants who must either work or go to school full time. Twenty-nine percent of participants are still in high school.
“Any parent taking care of a senior in high school knows what it takes to get them out of bed in the morning,” said Guillette. For those students, this program fills that void.
Those enrolled in the program draft a “self-sufficiency contract” that lists goals they would like to achieve. Goals can include things like getting good grades at school or saving money.
Kim Rose, director of Rhode Island Council of Resource Providers for Children, Youth and Families, said the program is a bridge to independence that helps transition youths from childhood to adulthood. Case managers can meet with the young adults for up to eight hours per month, but Rose said the goal is to slowly decrease the amount of case management each participant gets throughout the years. By the time participants age out of the YESS program they should be entirely self-sufficient.
Rose said the program helps youths to stay off the streets and out of trouble by providing them with enough supplemental money to find housing.
The YESS program supplies participants with $450 per month for housing, but the money does not go towards personal things like a car, cell phone, clothes or food. Many of the participants must work at least part time to afford other essentials.
For Smith, the advantages of the program run deeper than putting money in the bank and a roof over her head. YESS gives Smith the opportunity to stay connected to her closest family member – her twin sister.
“It means a lot to me,” she said. “Being separated from her in foster care made things difficult.”
Smith said her bond with her twin is stereotypically deep.
“Sometimes we’ll come out of rooms in the morning and we’ll be wearing the exact same thing,” she smiled.
In addition to impacting the YESS program, the proposed cuts would affect an 800 number for children’s behavioral-related emergencies established through a partnership between Kid’s Link and Gateway Healthcare. The hotline is a 24-hour service that is geared at solving non-medical emergencies outside of the ER. Before this hotline, families who struggled with behavioral emergencies had nowhere to go but the hospital. Since the 800 number’s inception in 2007, 3,400 children have used the service.
Cathy Ciano, Executive Director for the Parent Support Network, said the 800 number has decreased the amount of children being brought to emergency rooms. Ciano, who is also the mother of two children that have struggled with behavioral issues, said lifelines like these are important to families and children struggling with non-medical emergencies.
Rose compared the hotline to a routine visit to the dentist.
“No one wants it until you need it. It’s like preventing tooth decay, and then one day you have a root canal and you have to spend thousands of dollars,” she said.
For Smith, services like YESS and the hotline have helped get her to where she is today. In addition to her goal of becoming a social worker, Smith said she wants to gain independence and break free of the system. She doesn’t want to be another statistic.
“I want to be free of the whole system,” said Smith. “I’m grateful right now, but I don’t want to have to rely on anyone. I want to be someone that other people can rely on.”