Over the next month, Los Angeles County will roll out an electronic system that supporters say will make it easier for youth in foster care to enroll in programs in the county’s workforce system. That is the first step in a new effort to create more opportunities for foster youth to access job programs, training and other employment resources at about 60 government-funded job centers across the county.
The automated referral system is designed to improve the ability to qualify for employment-related resources open to foster youth available through workforce boards and job centers. It will serve as the technological core of a commitment in Los Angeles to get all foster youth work experience by age 18.
The plan will require intensified partnership between the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which cares for more than 4,600 foster youth ages 16-21, the Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS) and community partners.
“We want to make sure there are no wrong doors for foster youth,” said Lauri Collier, director of the Opportunity Youth Collaborative, a coalition associated with the Alliance for Children’s Rights that advocates for the needs of transition-age foster youth in public systems.
Connecting youth to work as they age out of the system remains an area of great challenge. A recent survey of California foster youth at age 21 found that they were significantly less likely to have ever held down a job compared with youth in the general population (88 percent versus 97 percent) and were also less likely to have worked a job of more than 10 hours a week or more within the past nine weeks. At age 21, the average household income from employment for foster youth was $8,709, according to that study.
Many youth are living in unstable housing situations and move often, making it difficult for them to stay connected to programs. County officials have said that the lack of adults that can model workplace behaviors are a big challenge for youth aging out of the system, as well as the impact of trauma in and out of the foster care system.
“Our kids are … relatively unaccompanied and unsupported” when it comes to finding work, said Jenny Serrano, director of special projects for Youth Development Services at DCFS. “If you think back to how you might have gotten your first job and questions you might have had to ask and who was around to answer those questions — it’s a very different experience for our youth who have to do all of that on their own.”
Over the past six years, the poor employment outcomes for foster youth aging out of care have led to a collaborative effort to prioritize foster youth and other vulnerable populations in the county’s workforce system. At one point in 2013, L.A. County’s workforce system — which includes more than 60 job centers that help residents find work — had only 83 foster youth confirmed within its system, according to Maritza Dubie-Uribe of WDACS.
“In effect we — the system — were guilty of neglecting these youth,” Dubie-Uribe said, who noted that the number of youth served at job centers in L.A. County has now increased more than tenfold. “The system has [since] acknowledged that to truly help this population we all must share the responsibility.”Since then, greater efforts have been made to overcome obstacles like a lack of awareness of county workforce programs, enrollment processes that varied across the seven workforce boards and the burdensome process of verifying foster youth status. Another part of that change also includes $1 million set aside by L.A. County for job programs specifically aimed at foster youth. L.A. County already had a jobs program designed to provide young people with 120 hours of work experience. But it also added the Bridge to Work program, which offers foster older foster youth 400 hours of paid work experience, and launched the County-Wide Youth Bridges program, aimed at giving systems-involved youth ages 16 to 24 a paid path into the county government workforce.
This summer, DCFS, the probation department and the Los Angeles County Office of Education approved an agreement with WDACS and its seven workforce boards to commit to two big employment goals designed to help launch all foster, homeless and justice-involved youth in the county: 100 hours of paid work experience by age 16 and 300 hours of paid work experience by age 18.
“The fact that we now have collectively come together and have committed to hard numbers speaks volumes as to how far our network has come,” said Dubie-Uribe of WDACS.
Thanks to the work of nonprofit and other local agency partners, the plan was significantly bolstered by the county’s securing a waiver from the U.S. Department of Labor that allows the county to offer in-school foster youth Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act (WIOA) services that would be otherwise unavailable. Youth in extended foster care must be working or going to school to stay eligible for benefits; that can also disqualify youth from receiving WIOA money that is usually limited to out-of-school youth. The WIOA waiver for foster youth is the only such waiver in the country, according to advocates.
In L.A. County, there is hope that the new referral system will help speed the process for more foster youth to more seamlessly enter the workforce system. Social workers and lawyers for foster youth are currently the only groups that can make referrals to programs at job centers, but county leaders say the new process could expand to include to families who work with the county’s prevention efforts, youth who are involved with the county’s nascent juvenile diversion effort and even some community-based organizations.
“This isn’t just about completing a program — we want to get kids connected to services that will last them forever,” said Serrano of DCFS.