Perspectives of Foster Youth Emerging Into Adulthood
“I left the juvie system when I was 17, and I got placed back in a foster home until that family kicked me out,” said Alex R., a 29-year-old from Tacoma, Washington. “Even when I was forced into sex working, I didn’t want to go back to sleeping on the streets. I was groomed for years by someone I trusted … they made me believe trading my body for money was the only way I would live.”
Currently, Washington state is trying to help young people like Alex. The Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) are finalizing their strategic priorities plan for 2021-2026. Over the next five years, DCYF will focus on six agency priorities, including one that involves the transitional plans of young people exiting the state’s system. The department’s goals are to improve the agency’s racial equity toward the population they serve, as well as improve the practices and provider services for these youth.
“Part of that priority area is looking at how can we better support youth transitioning out and not exiting into homelessness,” said Dae Shogren, administrator for the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice at DCYF. “That can include everything from the staff that we hire, to the assessments that we use, to the supports we’re able to provide to young people.”
Jerrica Love is another alumni who experienced homelessness after leaving the foster care system at age 18. She moved homes over seven times before exiting, and her placement instability turned into four years of couch surfing and living on the streets. When she lived on the street in a tent for a year with her partner and child, she said she felt alone, betrayed, exhausted, hurt and hungry. She said she also felt disgusted and hopeless and would often go to food banks or churches that provided meals. Love said for a while she didn’t know she could apply for state assistance food stamps.
Shogren said at times the support from providers may be limited, which both Alex and Love know all too well. They both lacked stability during their transitions out of Washington’s foster care and juvenile justice systems.
“Being aged out and going on my own, I felt pretty betrayed, because I would reach out to my social workers I did have and nobody would answer or call me back,” Love said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m homeless, I don’t know where to go.’”
Federal funds are not given to juvenile justice systems to provide independent living services (ILS) like they are for systems that serve foster youth.
“When you think about ILS, there’s financial support and caseworker support for things like housing, education, employment and self-care,” Shogren said. “That level of support isn’t available in the juvenile justice system. It’s one of the pieces that our office is really trying to look at and examine with those programs.”
Many young people face barriers when exiting state programs, particularly placement stability. Alex moved between three homes before getting kicked out to the streets. Housing instability can be mentally exhausting. “I had a lot of mental breakdowns ’cause I had so much anxiety about what I would eat next or where I would sleep,” Alex said.
“It feels overwhelming with all these people expecting so much of you, but you’re only dealt with so many cards,” Love said. “It’s frustrating for youth that walk out the door excited to be an adult, and you go out on your own and it doesn’t work.”
Love was seen by an outreach worker from Northwest Youth Services for young adults in downtown Bellingham eating an unfinished ice cream cone that was left on a table. They reached out to her and got her the help she needed by teaching her important independent living skills, such as budgeting. She gained employment and was provided financial assistance in getting her first apartment through the program.
Alex didn’t get help until after nearly dying from a drug overdose. He entered a recovery program and stayed in safe transitional housing through his rehab services, eventually finding employment. He didn’t get the help he needed sooner because, Alex said, “I didn’t trust that anyone would understand what I went through, so I didn’t think asking for help was a good idea.”
Alex, now age 29, and Love, age 26, are advocates in their communities for other youth and are actively involved in changing the system by sharing their personal experiences. Alex is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree in applied science. Love completed her high school diploma at Whatcom Community College this year and plans to transfer to Western Washington University for social work.
“I feel like the system is just really fragile right now,” Love said. “I know that not having the proper training on how to transition children or youth from going to care to on their own is a little ragged because the system lacks care.”