Adolescence is difficult for all of us — awkward physical and emotional changes, confusing relationships with peers and adults, sudden urges to press for independence. We are sampling new identities as we create our own.
For young people in foster care, adolescence is an even lonelier, scarier obstacle course that may begin with being removed from the familiarity of home. Within the context of court appearances, foster home disruptions, agency staffing changes, etc., we expect foster youth to become stable, independent adults by the time they are 21, a Herculean task that almost no one anywhere achieves.
The sobering statistics regarding how young people leaving foster care fare in New York City should come as no surprise. Upon turning 21, we bid them farewell, and set them out into a daunting, enticing, dangerous city with a high cost of living, and tremendous risk of unemployment, even for the best connected. Former foster youth face increased risk of incarceration, chronic unemployment and unplanned pregnancy. Only 22 percent obtain high school diplomas by age 21; one in five is homeless by age 24.
The trauma and alienation inherent to foster care are multiplied for LGBTQ-identified youth, who are over-represented in the child welfare system, often because of who they are. Having faced additional prejudice and rejection due to their orientation or gender identity, their risks of homelessness and victimization increase as a result. Economic precariousness, compounded by a traumatic background, is not an ideal base for educational or professional achievement. But unless we create the structures to support our transitional youth, this is the foundation upon which they are expected to build a successful life.
Let us not, however, become discouraged by our current circumstances. Instead, we should direct our energy to leverage the tremendous untapped potential of the foster youth in our communities. Those of us who work with them every day know that they will succeed when they have the right tools.
JCCA, where I am the CEO, is a child welfare organization with an almost 200-year history of caring for vulnerable children and families. In 1950, an 18-year-old exiting our care could pay for an apartment, as well as tuition at a public college, with a minimum wage job. Many of our alumni did just that, building careers and families with the resources that were available to them at the time. Since then, much has changed, leaving our young people in a dramatically different position to achieve stable adulthood. We need to ensure that they have what it takes.
Fair Futures, a model that pairs foster youth with long-term, consistent coaching to support their progress before and after they have exited foster care, is the difference. Those of us who enter adulthood having had the benefit of stable childhoods can rely on our families and communities as anchors of reassurance and encouragement in good times and bad.
I remember reaching for the phone to call my parents with equal haste when I received my first job offer and when I was uncertain of how to deal with the torturous pain after my wisdom teeth were removed. The Fair Futures model provides this same anchor to young people aging out of care — from middle school through age 26.
Fair Futures coaches help foster youth navigate the path to academic, vocational and life success. Whether it is connecting youth to tutors, negotiating with a difficult landlord, filling a prescription, celebrating a victory or offering moral support when life’s challenges feel insurmountable, Fair Futures will provide the unconditional support that is so critical to individual security, well-being and the ability to trust and feel confident.
With philanthropic support, two foster care agencies in New York City have already implemented Fair Futures, and the results are remarkable. Ninety percent of their program participants obtain their high school diploma or GED, and many have successfully completed college. But every young person in care should have access to the future they deserve.
Fair Futures is an important, precedent-setting opportunity that will show our young people in care that their futures matter by supporting them until they are 26. The economics are self-evident: better futures for our young people in care means a better future for our city. The moral obligation is self-evident: we must ensure each foster youth has an equal chance at a happy, healthy and stable life.
New York City has been an innovator in child welfare so many times. We have led the nation in the reduction of congregate care for young people who require out-of-home services. We were among the first in the nation to support families in communities by offering community-based services to prevent the need to remove children because of a safety risk. Now is the time for New York City, with Fair Futures, to distinguish itself once more.
Ronald E. Richter is the CEO and executive director of JCCA, formerly the Jewish Child Care Association. He also served as commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services from 2011 to 2013, and served as a New York City Family Court judge for four years.
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