Why Oregon Should Expand the Reach of Independent Living Programs for Foster Youth

Oregon Foster Youth Connection members Hanna Love, Nathaniel Schwab and Justin Bliven lobbied legislators in Salem last week. Photo courtesy of OFYC

When I was 17, my bike was stolen. It was a pretty difficult situation for me.

The year before, I had entered foster care with my 7-year-old sister. I depended on my bike to get me to my first job, which wasn’t very close to the foster home where my sister and I had been placed.

I was fortunate that I had the creative help and support from a caseworker in an Independent Living Program (ILP) in Oregon. ILP services provide training, classes and stipends for living expenses to help foster youth make a successful transition out of foster care and into independent adulthood. In this case, after my caseworker made a few calls and connected with a local bike shop in the community, I had a new ride. The shop provided me with a repaired and working bike with a new lock and helmet.

ILP also helped me create a professional resume, apply for better jobs and take practical, but essential life skill classes, such as cooking. Through the program, I received gift cards and vouchers for new clothing and was able to get basics like toothpaste and shampoo from a supply closet they had at the office.

There are many people involved in the life of a foster youth, but a lot of them simply don’t have the time to educate youth with the essential skills typical teenagers receive through the experience of growing up with their parents. ILP helps fill that gap.

That’s why it’s so important to increase funding for Oregon’s ILP program through Senate Bill 745 so that they can serve more youth in the state. Making sure that more youth in care are equipped with the tools they need to become independent young adults was a key need identified by Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC), a youth-led organization for former and current foster youth from ages 14 through 25.

SB 745 would invest an additional $8.5 million for youth transitioning out of foster care, including the ILP programs. Oregon’s ILP programs served 1,357 youth in 2017, but they’re currently only available for young people ages 16 to 21 years old. OFYC would like to make sure the bill expands the age range to include youth from 14 to 23 years old — a critical time when youth have many needs that aren’t served by the state’s overwhelmed caseworkers.

Department of Human Services caseworkers have high caseloads in Oregon, plus most have their own families as well. They try to do their best with youth in care, but to be able to mentor every youth one-on-one to help them plan for their future is just impossible.

As young adults in care, getting a reliable car or a job is much more difficult for us than it is for the average youth who hasn’t experienced the foster care system. We often struggle and feel overwhelmed about thinking or planning for our future because we are solving so many problems now. Many of us face significant difficulties ranging from past trauma to the fear of where we or our siblings might sleep next.

A lot of youth don’t receive the necessary step-by-step guidance about how to navigate adulthood, which leaves them vulnerable to homelessness and poverty. It’s not always clear what the next step is for us in many situations.

That’s why ILP is so important. For example, I remember that ILP caseworkers told us that if we wanted a particular job, there were specific things that we had to do to get it, like building a strong resume and talking to the manager. It’s very basic information for most people, but it’s stuff we were never taught growing up in foster care.

Another benefit that may be less obvious is that ILP provides an opportunity for youth to build lasting connections while in care. These relationships are an important factor in improving outcomes for youth in care. According to the Fostering Youth Transitions report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 71 percent of foster youth ages 16 or older in Oregon transition out of care without being reunited or connected to a family. Through ILP, youth can build these critical relationships with not only their service providers, but also other youth participating in the program as well.

The more Oregon can support foster youth, the bigger the hurdles we’ll be able to get over. SB 745 would give us a huge boost.

Nathaniel Schwab, 22, is a member of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection. In addition to his advocacy work, he is an entrepreneur who runs two small businesses, including Marble & Ivory photography.

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