Foster Youth and Ho(p)melessness

The topic of homelessness appears to be hitting a tipping point with cities and government agencies receiving national attention. A spotlight is being focused on the tens of thousands of foster children who become homeless once they are forced out of the system… and those who become homeless even while still in foster care.

A recent Oklahoma City Times Record article headline by Sidney Lee shouted, "Oklahoma DHS: 30 Percent of Foster Care Youths Who Age Out Experience Homelessness." Connie Schlittler, director of the Office of Planning, Research and Statistics for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, stated, “We have an obligation to do better by children who are in child welfare custody.” She continued to condemn the system as “a pipeline for homelessness" that adds thousands of foster teenagers to the ranks of the homeless each year.

A University of Nebraska–Lincoln study revealed that more than half of the homeless population in Washington State have come out of the foster care system. These are not simply foster kids who aged out, but many who chose to leave their foster home because the streets provided the “lesser of two evils” – a way out of an environment where they knew they would continue to be physically, emotionally or sexually abused. These kids choose to run away from their foster home situation rather than remain victimized, which, in turn, puts them at high risk of being attached, raped or killed on the streets.

The study highlighted this situation by sharing the story of thirteen year old Emily who was being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Emily was placed into the relative safety of foster care at fourteen. However, because of managerial ineptitude, three months later she was forced to choose between two options - return to live with her mother and the boyfriend/rapist or leave the foster home and live on the streets.

She chose the unknown dangers of the streets over the known dangers of her home. No further foster care option was offered.

Adding to those cases where foster children are forced to run away for their own safety, there is the growing crisis of sex trafficking that aggressively goes after foster youths. In late 2014, the FBI conducted its largest national sex trafficking raid, one that spanned the country. In the aftermath of multiple raids, documents showed that many of the children who were forced into prostitution and sold as sex slaves had been in the welfare system, including foster care. A Los Angeles Times article highlighted this issue, saying that the raids, “brought renewed attention to the vulnerabilities of foster children, who are disproportionately targeted and recruited by child sex traffickers, sometimes right out of the foster care system.” When faced with homelessness and no financial or family support, one can only imagine how much more appealing life could seem to a foster teen when at least offered food and a place to live -- even if, ultimately, the teen will be forced into sex and committing crimes in order to stay alive.

The June 2, 2016 article by the Seattle Weekly brings home how poorly the foster care system is managed when it comes to tackling homelessness:

“The foster care system doesn’t even collect data on kids who become homeless in the system; only by interviewing teens who are living on the streets and in shelters did the Children and Families Administration arrive at its figures of homeless teens with a history in foster care. In essence, homeless youth in the child welfare system don’t exist on paper.”

How can any organization or agency address a problem where there is no data to work with?

For 17-year-old teenagers who live with their family, their thoughts mainly focus on their future and going to college or trade school. In contrast, for almost half of the U.S. states, foster kids of the same age are thinking about where they’ll be sleeping or getting their next meal once they turn 18. These kids are usually scared because instead of a birthday cake and presents, when they turn 18 they will lose their home, their friends, and whatever sense of security they have because they will be forced out of the foster care system.

Lack of affordable housing options poses a serious challenge for former foster children. Some transitional programs include a core focus on getting foster teenagers into colleges. While as students, foster youths enjoy food and housing during the school semester, many find themselves homeless, couch surfing or living in a car during semester breaks. Even with plentiful housing, which is often not the case, former foster youths often have to contend with landlords who may see these potential tenants as delinquents and troublemakers. While many teenagers have a parent or relative to co-sign for an apartment, reducing a landlord’s concern about possible monetary loss, most foster teenagers have no such financial support.

One of the best tools available to minimize the foster children homeless crisis is family finding, a process that is highly effective yet underutilized by foster care agencies. This mandated aspect of the foster care system has been proven to dramatically reduce the negative impact of homelessness on foster youth. Kids who are placed with relatives do much better emotionally and mentally. The family stability helps these kids to interact socially, do better in school and have higher odds of graduating from high school than those kids living in a group home.

A new study by the Administration for Children and Families uncovered that a parent (14.8%) was less likely to help a foster kid who has aged out compared to a relative at 24.7%. Family finding efforts often identify and locate aunts, uncles and grandparents who are willing to be there for their foster child relative.

Los Angeles is at the forefront of maximizing family finding efforts. The county has a success rate of placing more than 50% of foster kids with relatives compared to the national average of just 29%. Board of Supervisors’ member, Sheila Kuehl, commented that with “research indicating that children placed with relatives have better educational, health and behavioral outcomes, it's a no-brainer to build on our success” of expanding efforts to place more foster youths with family members instead of in group homes.

More needs to be done to protect and safeguard foster children so they don't fall through the cracks as Emily did. Our obligation as a society to care for foster kids includes ensuring they have a safe home environment and that their medical and emotional needs are being properly addressed. Part of this care includes preventing an environment of abuse in which youths leave a home only to become another member of the homeless or, worse, a victim of sex trafficking.

There is no one-size-fits-all, and agencies need to look at solutions both while a child is in the foster care system and once they are forced to be on their own. Although there will always be the need to have some form of group home, performing more family finding will certainly work to benefit thousands of foster children who would now have the potential to be connected with relatives. When these foster kids age out, they can choose to live with their aunts, uncles and other relatives or at least have that vital family connection that many non-foster youths take for granted. Transitional housing is an important piece of the overall strategy to help foster kids become self-sustaining. No matter how it happens, keeping foster children from becoming homeless is a critical priority for foster care agencies.

At the end of the day this comment from a colleague of Schlittler at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services sums up the foster child homeless crisis:

“It’s wrong that we take kids away from their families and the state of Oklahoma says we’re going to take care of them, and this is the outcome: that they become homeless.”