Aging Out Of Foster Care
"Aging out" of the foster care system leaves young adults on their own, with little guidance on how to handle adulthood. A new U.P. program helps these fledgling adults navigate the real world.
Turning 18 years old is, for most teens, a milestone to celebrate, a door opening into a new world of freedom and responsibility. And while the new young adults may roll their eyes at the advice and guidance offered by their parents, they have the security of knowing that a safety net is in place as they learn how to be grownups.
For teens in foster care, however, an 18th birthday typically marks an abrupt and unceremonious entry into adulthood, often with little or no support from any loving adult on how to live in the "real" world.
One Michigan-based program that is very active in the Upper Peninsula is making strides to change that, however.
The Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative
offers a stepping stone from foster care to adulthood. According to its website, MYOI's goal is to "ensure that young people in foster care have successful outcomes in housing, education, employment, community engagement and health." The program is open to youths ages 14 to 21 who are in the foster care system as a result of abuse or neglect, and to youths ages 18 to 21 who were in foster care at any time after their 14th birthday but are no longer under the supervision of the Department of Human Services.
MYOI program coordinator Jason Sides says that while schooling young people on the nuts and bolts of being an adult is vital, the intangible support the program offers is equally valuable.
"Dr. John Seita, a former foster youth himself, said at a recent conference in Marquette that every youth 'needs someone that is crazy about them,' and I think that rings true. It’s human nature that we just want to be cared about, and to some extent, MYOI provides that for them," Sides says.
Twenty-eight youths are currently enrolled in the program in the central Upper Peninsula. In addition, several young people are "pre-enrolled," meaning they still must complete their enrollment paperwork, take an online survey and complete eight hours of financial literacy training.
Once enrolled, MYOI participants receive seed money, which is placed in two accounts, a personal savings account and an Individual Development Account. The youths may use the money from the personal savings account in any way they wish. The IDA is designated for larger, beneficial expenditures such as school, housing, or the purchase of a vehicle. Participants are required to make a monthly deposits into their IDA accounts. MYOI matches the IDA funds dollar to dollar up to $1,000 per year.
Sides describes the matched funds as "a major component of the program. I think that if a youth makes one or two of those (purchases) that shows success, as it’s giving them a tool to flourish on their own."
Youths earn money for the accounts through participation in MYOI activities, such as attending asset specific trainings, participating in youth board meetings or activities and taking bi-yearly surveys which track their progress.
With the help of MYOI, 19-year-old "Alice" (name changed to protect her privacy) is building the foundation for the successful future she envisions.
"My dream as an adult is to graduate from Northern Michigan University
and have a great job and a loving family. Also, to be able to teach everything I have learned from MYOI to my children and others so they don't make the same little mistakes I did."
Alice joined MYOI to take advantage of its workshops on how to apply for financial aid and how to find employment. She learned the importance of establishing and keeping good credit. She also learned, to her surprise, that she wasn't as money savvy as she thought.
She also discovered that there was more to applying for jobs and for financial aid than she'd imagined: "(It's) is a lot more time consuming than doing a homework assignment."
MYOI's financial incentive is a key element in Alice's quest to complete college."(I get) a little extra money to use for classes, gas, and hanging out with friends. The state matches $1,000 a year and that helped my buy my car, and it helps pay for rent and phone bills, for I don't have parents to help with these things."
Youths in the foster care system face struggles the typical adolescent never contends with. "I’d say some of the biggest challenges are not having typical familial support, or on a larger scale, not feeling as a part of their community," says Sides. "Many foster youth transition from placement to placement with little or no connection to others. MYOI attempts to bridge that gap by getting the youth involved by networking with local community partners and getting them involved with volunteer projects.
"Too often, these youth can be labeled as troubled or lacking the drive to succeed when in actuality they just have not been provided the tools that their peers are given and that most of us take for granted."
Community awareness and involvement are crucial to the futures of each and every foster child in Michigan.
"Foster youth and MYOI need the support of the community at large," says Sides. "Whether it’s with a financial donation, presenting at asset trainings, or taking the time to learn about issues that affect foster youth, it’s imperative that our young people are supported by those who can. Without support from the community, foster youth are more likely to become homeless and/or incarcerated and have less of a chance of completing high school or enrolling in college than their peers who haven’t been in care."
Alice's reflections on the skills she's learned and the support she's receiving are a testament to the success of MYOI's mission.
"We are taught the best ways to handle our money, to cook and to eat healthy. We are shown the best way to find a good car at a reasonable price along with putting together financial aid and work documents.
"I feel more confident in myself now than I did before MYOI. I have people to look to if need help figuring out financial aid, or finding a job. My attitude about myself has grown and I know now that it takes just a few extra minutes a day to make yourself a better person, to become more successful."
"MYOI youth come from circumstances beyond their control," Sides says. "They haven’t chosen the path they have been given. MYOI has the ability to change the course of where they’re going. MYOI wants foster children to have the same opportunities we give to our own children. They’re not responsible for where they are; where they’re going is up to us."