According to social services, children age out of the foster care system or are “emancipated” at 18, or when they graduate from high school, whichever is first.
Some of the teens maintain a relationship with their former foster families, but some don’t. All of them, experts said, face a challenging future when federal and state funding ends.
The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program Title I of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, is a federal law that provides funds to states to assist youth and young adults, up to the age of 21, in the foster care system transition into adulthood.
Experts said the law gives states more flexibility in providing youth who are aging out of foster care help with education, career and emotional support and planning.
“Youth leaving foster care can fall flat on their faces,” Sheila Johnson, Stepping Stones coordinator, said.
The program includes several avenues for the teens, including keeping the money they pay in rent in a savings account, and giving it to them later. A starter kit also helps them apply for vocational training, scholarships and post-secondary education. If a teen doesn’t have a birth certificate, for example, the program pays for the paperwork.
For Armando Hernandez, the program helped him little by little establish his priorities and goals for his future.
“It was kind of cool; it happened a step at a time, so it wasn’t overwhelming,” he said. “They helped me fill out applications. I didn’t even know what a scholarship was.”
Hernandez said he felt that he had been on his own in the world, but the program made him feel independent, and reinforced his thoughts that he could continue.
Helen Red Feather has lived in a Stepping Stones apartment since the end of July and has found her independence a breath of fresh air.
“I really like it,” she said. “We have to be responsible for everything, food, rides, rent. It feels good to be able to actually do something by myself.”
After school, she wants to go to college to study social work. She has created a stable environment for herself and a consistent schedule keeps her out of trouble.
“I work and I go to school,” she said. “I have goals I’m trying to reach. I don’t really worry about the future too much.”
She wants to take a very different path than her parents.
“I feel like I’ve been on my own for a while,” she said. “I don’t want to follow in the same footsteps. I don’t want to make the same mistakes they made.”
Hernandez feels the same. He is now a student at South Dakota State University where he is studying architecture. He still keeps in touch with some of his foster parents. There are still areas of his life that are touched by his past. He doesn’t have a home to go to over the holidays, or for the summer, like his college peers will.
“I was worried about that,” he said. “But everyone has offered to let me stay with them. They’re really supportive. We still have a bond. I could still ask them for anything.”
One day, he’s hoping to be a husband and a father. But he would do it very differently than his parents did.
“I’m hoping to do what my mom wasn’t able to do,” he said. “I want to support a family one day, know that everything is secure and balanced and not dysfunctional and crazy.”
Hernandez said he is intent on making a better life for himself.
“It’s been really hard, but I wouldn’t take any of it back,” he said. “It’s made me who I am. I just want to keep going. I don’t want to mess up.”