At 18, teens “age out” of foster care with no family to help

ThreeSixty reporter Grace Pastoor
Reporter Grace Pastoor
We believe education is probably the strongest vehicle to get you out of this lifestyle, so we push it as hard as we can. – Bob Nelson, program operation manager for YouthLink

When a teen in foster care turns 18, the government support they receive while a minor ends. They often have minimal or no family support as they become adults. This means they must leave their foster or group home and provide for themselves.

People who work with youth aging out of the child welfare system say this often leads to homelessness, poverty and disruptions in education.

In 2010, 449 Minnesota kids aged out of foster care, according to the Children and Family Service’s annual report to the Minnesota legislature.

ThreeSixty reporter Grace Pastoor interviewed Bob Nelson, program operation manager for YouthLink, a Minneapolis organization that helps teens aging out of foster care. She spoke with him about the challenges teens face they age out.

YouthLink is one of a handful of local organizations that serve 16- to 21-year-olds in urgent need of help with housing, and more. This story has been edited for clarity and length.

GP: What obstacles do teens face when they age out?

BN: Once kids turn 18, they put them into the adult system and they don’t have the skills to navigate it. They don’t have anyone helping so they end up not getting the proper services that they need.

That’s why we see a lot of them become homeless. And if they have mental health issues and were on medications, they’ll often drop those.

What would be the hardest thing about becoming an adult without having a family supporting you?

A lot of teens do not develop good independent living skills through the foster care system, so they don’t have a good idea on how to budget money or take care of an apartment.

Another big obstacle they face is the lack of a family support system. For most kids, if you stumble a little, you can go home. You have support and encouragement. But the teens who age out are on their own and don’t have any people to really fall back on or talk to.

I think the county has a priority to work with the younger kids. The younger you work with the kid, the more impact you can have, so they will put more energy and resources into the younger kids.

A lot of the kids with the mental health issues who have grown up through the system have burned through every bridge, so the high-needs kids have burned through the foster homes and treatment, so the social worker is also faced with limited options.

GP: If a kid is in a foster home with a foster family and they turn 18, what happens?

BN: They have to leave. I think the foster family is supposed to end contact with them.

GP: Why?

BN: They’ve turned 18, so now they’re not in the child division now. They’re in the adult division.

GP: Where do people go for help after they age out?

BN: A lot of them end up here at YouthLink, or places like us like Hope Street (a Catholic Charities program in St. Paul and Minneapolis that serves runaway or homeless youth ages 16-20) or The Bridge (A 24-hour program in Minneapolis for runaways and youth ages 10-20 in crisis).

St. Paul has another drop-in center called the SafeZone (Run by Face to Face, which offers health care, counseling, and programs for homeless youth ages 10-23), but a lot will end up coming here.

Sometimes if they have some connection with family members, they can start there and if it works it works, but most of that’s going to fall apart.

GP: How does YouthLink work?

BN: We’re a drop-in center for homeless youth and street kids. They can get something to eat, hang out, and what we hope is, by building relationships with them, we’ll hook them up with a case manager and develop a case plan.

The case plan really tries to address three or four areas: family, education, employment and housing.

First we’re going to look at whether you have a safe place to stay and then it’s just developing that case plan.

We have a variety of programs to help, including three different supportive housing programs where kids can pay a very small amount of rent as long as they’re working on whatever their issues are.

We do outreach on the street to try to find kids and tell them about resources. We have tutors who come here so they can work on their GEDs, we have one program that just works with girls involved in the sex trade industry, and we have a whole program that works with kids on their mental heath issues.

We have Hennepin County here to work on the financial piece and get kids set up with that. We have health care for the homeless we have dental coming in once a month, we have Kulture Klub which works with kids in the arts.

Through all those steps we hope to eventually get kids on their own or back in school or into college, whatever the case may be.

GP: How do counties help kids who are aging out?

BN: The county has some adult programs, but for a kid the adult system is hard to navigate. Our program and other youth programs have a more nurturing way to do it.

GP: Tell me how YouthLink helps youth transitioning out of foster care with housing?

BN: We have four housing programs. The first one is called the Youth Mobile Team. That’s more geared toward youth with mental health issues and is a state contract site run through another agency. It’s scattered site housing, which means a person gets their own apartment and the state pays for their apartment and a case management service.

There is also Archdale and Barnabus, which are supportive housing. They provide the case management services and Aeon provides the property management services. That program has two separate housing buildings, and then we have seven scattered sites for teen parents.

The goal is to come in and almost pay full market rent so you’re used to paying rent and then you get back the rent you pay when you leave. It’s kind of like a forced savings account.

Residents also have to follow the rules, so it’s not like an adult apartment building. You have to meet with your case manager and take care of what you’re supposed to. Once you get a job you’re going to make more money you’re going pay more rent.

GP: How do kids end up at YouthLink?

BN: A lot of it is word of mouth. The street kids will meet kids who will say ‘Hey, I’ve been there and it’s a cool place.’ We have outreach workers who go out on the street and talk about resources so some will come through them. We work really closely with Minneapolis schools, so we get referrals from them as well.

GP: What does YouthLink do to help kids with education?

BN: We have GED teachers who come here so kids can work on their GEDs. We go with students to all the practice tests until they score high enough and then we’ll pay for them to take the GED test. We also have Minneapolis public school staff who come here and that’s where we go to get a kid re-enrolled in school. We believe education is probably the strongest vehicle to get you out of this lifestyle, so we push it as hard as we can.

GP: What does YouthLink do to get kids ready for work?

BN: We have some employment programs here to help. We have Hired and The Zone. Hired has a lot of youth internship programs so kids can get a job through that. The Zone works a lot with job readiness skills. We’ll help them with their resume and their interview skills.

We have some job opportunities here, which vary from season to season. We have kids that work for us in the kitchen so they learn some culinary skills and do a lot of cooking meals and dish washing. We have positions called youth ambassadors who work during the day, doing tours and working with new kids that come in.