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After Foster Teens Leave The System

Audio

Aired 11/30/09

What happens to a foster teen when he or she turns 18 and is let out of the system? We speak to members of a local foster care organization.

Caroline Calabrese, with Soroptimist of La Jolla.

Sarah Pauter, A young woman who has recently "aged out" of the foster child program.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. I’d like to mention a programming note. We were hoping to speak with San Diego City Council member Marti Emerald this morning but she had a family emergency. We will reschedule her appearance and continue with our series of interviews with San Diego City Council members. District 4’s Tony Young is scheduled for next Monday. Right now, I’d like you to think back to when you were 18 years old. You were old enough to vote, to enter into a contract, to decide things for yourself. You were legally an adult. But, when you ran into a problem with money or jobs or even car trouble, you might not have felt like much of an adult. And, for most of us, it was good to be able to rely on mom and dad to pave over the rough spots. But for kids who age out of the foster care system at 18, being an adult is not just a fun idea to explore, it's a new reality. They’re often really on their own, without the skills or resources to create a functional adult life. The Just in Time Organization helps former foster kids make the transition from adult life – to adult life, that is, and the group is sponsoring a seasonal fund drive called My First Home for the Holidays. Here to talk about the program and the challenges faced by foster kids trying to make it on their own are my guests. Kathryn Vaughn, president of Just In Time Foster Youth. Kathryn, welcome to These Days.

KATHRYN VAUGHN (President, Just In Time Foster Youth): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Sarah Pauter is a young woman who has recently aged out of the foster child program. Sarah, welcome.

SARAH PAUTER (Former Foster Child): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. And Caroline Calabrese is with Soroptimist of La Jolla. Caroline, welcome.

CAROLINE CALABRESE (Representative, Soroptimist of La Jolla): Good morning, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you know what it’s like for a foster kid making the transition to living on their own? Have you been a foster parent or a former foster child? Give us a call with your questions or your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Kathryn, I’m going to ask you a little bit more about what happens to kids when they age out of the foster care program.

VAUGHN: Well, approximately two to three hundred youth are terminated from the foster care system each year. And they’re…

CAVANAUGH: That’s here in San Diego?

VAUGHN: Yes, here in San Diego County. And Just In Time learned about six years ago from one of our juvenile court advocates, Jeanette Day, about what it was like to be 18 and on your own. She would watch young people leave the courthouse and literally have no money, nothing for their first home. You know, it was a real shock.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the things that kids take for granted if they come from a home where there’s a mom and a dad and perhaps the foster kids wouldn’t have or wouldn’t know how to do?

VAUGHN: Imagine what it’s like to be stranded on the side of the freeway, you have a flat tire, you’re in college, you have a job but you have no savings. Who do you call? Usually, mom, dad, aunt, somebody help, you know, I need a tow truck or I need that tire repaired because if I don’t have it tomorrow, I’m not going to be able to go to work. I won’t go – be able to go to school. And it’s those kind of things where you move into your first home and your mom, dad, maybe they give you the extra sofa, sheets, beds. Our children – our kids don’t have that.

CAVANAUGH: And the foster care programs, when somebody turns 18, it all just ends? I mean, all support ends for that child, now an adult?

VAUGHN: Well, our San Diego County does have transitional home programs for youth but not enough beds for all of our transitioning foster youth. And there’s some other programs now that have begun to help youth with scholarships for education and I think there’s a community awareness now that our youth need additional help. If you look at statistics, one out of five foster youth become homeless each year.

CAVANAUGH: What about basic life skills? Does the foster care prepare kids to face that kind of stuff when they become adults?

VAUGHN: You know, that’s a challenging question. I would say sometimes but what I find that a lot of youth are in placement an average of five or six different homes in any given year. Some of our youth are placed up to 22 times in one year.

CAVANAUGH: In one year?

VAUGHN: Yes. They may attend – I have young people that attend high school, five different high schools. And so I think it’s very challenging for them to pick up consistent life skills from the families and just because of the transitions.

CAVANAUGH: We’re speaking about what happens to foster children after they’re aged out of the program and the different skills and the different help that they might need. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Kathryn, I want to ask you about your group Just In Time. What does your organization provide?

VAUGHN: Well, Just In Time is kind of like a family for a former foster youth. We have six different programs so, for example, we have a College Bound program and we have – we give out laptops and printers, and we have our volunteers who take them shopping for the first dorm items that something that maybe a parent would do. We have an Emergency program for those critical needs when the young person says, oh, I have an interview tomorrow but I don’t have clothes. They can call Just In Time and we help them with basic needs. We have a Vocational program so if you are in welding school, do you need a welding tank? We’re going to find that for you. We’re going to get that for you. So the goal is to keep our young people in school and employed.

CAVANAUGH: I want to move on to Sarah, if I may, because, Sarah, you’ve had a lot of experience in the foster care program.

PAUTER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: You were in the foster system since you were one year old.

PAUTER: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in foster care?

PAUTER: My experience in foster care, considering I have nothing to compare it to…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, uh-huh.

PAUTER: …it wasn’t horrible. I wouldn’t say that it was horrible. I think that they have become better at gearing children to go to college and embedding them – embedding that need for education in them. And so when I emancipated, I had an acceptance letter to San Diego State University and I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to major in social work. And I had $400 and that’s where the hard stuff began, it wasn’t in the system. The system, I felt like everything – I had medical care, I had insurance, I had everything I needed. And I had a case worker I could call if I needed something else. It’s when I emancipated, all those services just evaporated, that the problems began.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of problems did you experience?

PAUTER: I just had no idea what it took to be an adult, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me. I – Thankfully, with Just In Time, I did their College Bound program and I got a laptop and a printer to set me up for my freshman year of college, and I did the My First Home, and so I had, you know, dishes and sheets and towels and all the things I needed but I didn’t know that I had to call ahead of time to have the electricity turned on in my new apartment. I didn’t know just basic things like that. It’s just things that you call and you ask mom and dad about.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. This is bringing it all back, you know, the things that you take for granted as an adult that you know, but when you’re first – you know, you’re first getting your first home and you’re getting your first job, they’re all new. Now have you been in touch with any other kids who used to be in foster care who’ve…

PAUTER: A lot.

CAVANAUGH: …had similar experiences?

PAUTER: A lot. And some of them are my best friends. So…

CAVANAUGH: And what’s going on with them?

PAUTER: A lot of them that I still remain in contact with have the same connections, they’re a part of Just In Time. They receive services from Just In Time. And a lot of them are in college, going to different schools in San Diego and trying to work, and we are our own support system a lot of the time.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting.

PAUTER: We call each other and we can kind of help each other network with different services and different organizations.

CAVANAUGH: Now as I understand it, Sarah, you were actually placed in foster care with your grandparents…

PAUTER: For…

CAVANAUGH: …is that correct?

PAUTER: Yes, for a lot of the time, correct, I was in placement.

CAVANAUGH: We they available for any assistance? Did they give you any assistance?

PAUTER: Yes, definitely, they gave me guidance but it’s interesting because a lot of times when you hear about foster kids, people have this notion that, you know, they grew up in group homes or they grew up in foster homes, which is a lot of the kids. But a lot of them also deal with relative placement. Most of the foster kids that I’ve met have been with aunts or uncles or grandparents for a period of time while they were in the system. And it has its own set of challenges and it’s different because you have to hear about your parents. You have to know what your parents are doing. You see them. And, in many ways, it’s like it’s a walking, talking death. And so it’s its own challenges, definitely.

CAVANAUGH: I see. What was so challenging about that?

PAUTER: It was hard because I – my mom was in prison. She went to prison for five years on drug charges. And when she got out, she was clean ever since. She got out and she moved away. And she just never came back from her – for her kids and I had to hear about it. I knew what she was doing. I knew where she was. And I think that was the difficult part in having contact with relatives or living with relatives.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. I’m speaking with Sarah Pauter. She has recently aged out of the foster care program. And my other guests are Kathryn Vaughn, president of Just In Time Foster Youth, and Caroline Calabrese with Soroptimist of La Jolla. Caroline, I want to get to you in just a moment. First of all, I want to let everyone know that we’re welcoming your calls at 1-888-895-5727. But, Kathryn, as we heard from Sarah, you know, there are special challenges that foster children, former foster children, face as they enter adulthood. And I’m wondering what kind of psychological support, if any, does Just In Time either provide or refer to?

VAUGHN: You know, one of the things I mentioned was we provide all the basic needs but I think the most – one of the most important components that Just In Time brings to our foster youth is mentorship. In each of our programs, we invite the community to come and participate, come and meet our foster youth and many times they will connect and they will gain a mentor for life. And one of our partners, Insight Investments, said something really wonderful recently. They’ve been giving us our laptops but they said ‘technology today and a mentor for life.’ You know, that is their goal, to assist former foster youth. And so in our upcoming event of My First Home for the Holidays, all the volunteers come out and our former foster youth, but I think even in Sarah’s case, they have a chance to meet somebody. And I think Sarah met someone that became her mentor and I think having that third person in life makes a huge difference, someone to call and talk to, you know, and give you support. And through our College Bound program, we have, it’s called Keep In Touch, so our youth are connected with a third person so, you know, when something happens your first year of college, you don’t know what to do, you can call that person and say, hey, this happened, you know, I need your help. Or, what do you think? Or, you know, just those little things that we all take for granted.

CAVANAUGH: Sarah, I’m going to ask you a little bit…

PAUTER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …more about the mentor program but first I want to get Caroline into the conversation. Welcome again for being here. Tell me what the Soroptimists have to do with this Just In Time program.

CALABRESE: Oh, the Soroptimists, we’re a nonprofit organization that we work on helping out. We mentor children, and we have been partnering for Just In Time for the last three years. They have been our focus program here in San Diego. And we have just been participating in the College Bound and doing college care package, you know, for the kids going to college. And My First Home for the Holiday, just really getting completely involved and being, you know, a big part of it and helping put everything together and putting structure on it so we can continue for the next years.

CAVANAUGH: What got your organization interested in Just In Time?

CALABRESE: The fact that, you know, just Kathryn and our other friend, you know, two women started this, you know, and they started really small and we wanted to help, you know, other women that are helping making a difference and helping other people. So that’s really what it was.

CAVANAUGH: I see. We have some callers who want to join the conversation. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Nini is calling from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Nini. Welcome to These Days.

NINI (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Hi. Thank you for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for calling, Nini.

NINI: Well, let me say, I am a foster parent, have been a foster parent for the last, oh, about 13 years. I have a couple of experiences with kids aging out. One had actually lived in our home up until the age of 18, 19 actually. She graduated high school and, you know, there was a great program there called the ILS program, the Independent Living program, that was there to kind of transition her but she started college and soon realized that she could not deal with college and so, you know, she just wasn’t mature or ready for it and couldn’t sit still and, oh, name the things. And now she’s trying to find a job on her own and so that’s one experience. Another experience, I have a young lady who lived with us between the ages of 11 and 12 and then came back to me, our home, when she – at the age of 19, had a year and a half old baby and then had another child. And we tried to mentor her and be – and give her some support. And she’s gone back and forth, even lived in our home three different occasions where we’ve tried to untangle what happened to her right after she got out of the system. And what, you know, she’s basically in no time at all, you know, she overdrafted her checking account, like four of them, in no time at all. She got evicted for – from her apartment for things that she didn’t do but her friends who moved in with her…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Nini, let – I think we get the – I think we get the drift of what you’re saying but I just wanted to ask you a question, though, Nini. Your connection is not terrific but I want to ask you a quick question. You have – What would you suggest the foster care system do to better prepare kids to live an adult life? Should it go to 21? What would your suggestion be?

NINI: I definitely think it should go to 21 or 22 because we need to see them through the period of time in which they can transition to a career where – or finish up college. And by just sort of releasing them and expecting them to know how to navigate the system doesn’t really work.

CAVANAUGH: Nini, thank you for your call. And, Kathryn, I want to ask you because not only doesn’t that look like it’s on the horizon, actually some of the benefits being given to foster kids who age out are being taken away by the state, aren’t they?

VAUGHN: They just recently received their budget cuts, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And what does that mean?

VAUGHN: What it means is the in-care providers, you know, the ILS that she mentioned, those that are there for the transitioning foster youth, are going to receive substantially less this next year to help with the basic needs, with housing and training for cooking and basic life skills.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s take another call. Catherine is calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Catherine. Welcome to These Days.

CATHERINE (Caller, San Marcos): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just called to say that I work with an organization called Fostering Opportunities Dollars for Scholars. We’re associated with Scholarship America. We raise money and completely donate all our time towards providing scholarships for aged out foster children to continue their education. So our scholarships go to colleges and even universities and we provide mentors for each of the kids that we work with. So…

CAVANAUGH: And what got you interested in doing this kind of work, Catherine?

CATHERINE: I was originally brought in by a friend of mine who told me that they needed some assistance and it was purely pro bono. He said this is a wonderful charity, all the money goes directly to the kids, there’s no administrative fees and they’re doing such good work. And since I’ve worked with them, I’ve heard the horror stories of how they’ve been through 10, 20 different foster homes, how they’ve been abused, how they’ve been starved, and how they have nothing once they’re aged out. Some of them are just literally thrown onto the streets. So anything we can do to help these kids, you know, we really try to do it. So we actually have a website called www.mydollar.org where aged out foster kids can go online, see what we do and apply for scholarships.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Catherine. We appreciate it. Sarah, I want to talk to you a…

PAUTER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …little bit more because Kathryn mentioned that you have a mentor who is…

PAUTER: I do.

CAVANAUGH: …helping. Tell us about that person.

PAUTER: Well, I met Micah when I was doing the My First Home program. And she was assigned to me. She was to go with me to Target and help me pick out what I needed for my apartment. And she – at the time, she was 25. She had a law degree. And I just thought it was just awe inspiring. And so she’s really helped me a lot. I’m looking at graduating next year and I want to go to law school. And so she’s definitely helping me with the progress.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific. That sounds great.

PAUTER: And that’s been going – our mentorship has been going on for two and a half years now.

CAVANAUGH: Now we mentioned something a couple of times and I want to go into it a little bit more. My First Home, and I know that there’s a corresponding My First Home for the Holidays. But, first of all, just tell us about what is the My First Home program?

VAUGHN: The My First Home program was started a little over six years ago and many of our youth go into their first home and they literally have nothing. They’re sleeping on the floor. And so we actually, all year long, we gather new and used items for our kids from pots and pans and vacuums, and our partner, Sleep Train, provide beds, so if a young person calls and they say, hey, I’ve moved into my first apartment, we have volunteers that get together, they meet the young person, they go in, they get them off the floor, a bed, they buy new sheets, they ask them what color do you like? You know, they care about them. And they take them shopping and they buy those little basic things to get started so they can cook and have – and go to sleep at night and wake up and go to school and work like all – you know, like other young people.

CAVANAUGH: Like other young people would get a visit from mom and she would bring the sheets and…

VAUGHN: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: …maybe dad would bring the utensils. And so what are the most common things that you – that’s needed in this program?

VAUGHN: One of the funniest things, vacuum cleaners.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

VAUGHN: Believe it or not, our young people, the first thing that they ask for is a vacuum cleaner. But they need things like a microwave, dishes, blankets, a comforter, sheets, nothing better than having new sheets, you know, in your first home. So think of all the things that you first needed when you went out in the world, and they’re all basics and those are the things that our young people need.

CAVANAUGH: I want to take another call. Mike is calling from Pacific Beach. Good morning, Mike, and welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning, and thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

MIKE: I’m gratified to hear all these organizations getting involved. I just want to say two things real fast. I think something that needs to be taken into consideration that often isn’t is the number of kids that aren’t counted when you’re looking at people that age out of foster care. They sort of become invisible to the system because they couch surf or they, you know, they sleep with – in places with friends or on couches where they can’t be counted, you know, by the people involved in that sort of thing. And also I work with a foundation called the stayclassy.org. We’re on a…

CAVANAUGH: Say that again. I’m sorry, you said that awfully fast, Mike. Say that again.

MIKE: Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, yeah, well, I think something that needs to be taken into the conversation that often isn’t is the number of invisible children out there.

CAVANAUGH: No, we heard that part. I’m just talking about…

MIKE: Oh.

CAVANAUGH: …the website.

MIKE: Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah, I work with stayclassy.org.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

MIKE: We’re a San Diego-based organization and we currently have a campaign for abandoned youth where we’re trying to raise $500,000 to build a youth homeless shelter for kids specifically that age out of foster care.

CAVANAUGH: And how far along are you on that project?

MIKE: We’ve been working on it about six months. We’re working with San Diego Youth Services and we’re up to about $80,000. We need, you know, $400,000 more.

CAVANAUGH: And what got you involved in this, Mike?

MIKE: Well, it’s just – the organization is stayclassy.org, like I said, I started working with them about six months ago. And we just wanted to find a way to give back to the San Diego community. We realized it’s a much bigger problem here than what people know about so, you know, you gotta…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

MIKE: …look for where you need it.

CAVANAUGH: Mike, thank you for the call. Kathryn, is this a much bigger problem than people are aware of?

VAUGHN: Yes, you know, it’s interesting on the discussion on statistics because they do vary and I think there is an underestimation of the number of youth that go homeless or are couch surfing, you know, and they become homeless. One out of five become homeless. I’ve seen studies where it said within 18 months 45% nationally of our foster youth become homeless so it’s a very serious problem, and in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Caroline, you’re taking the Just In Time My First Home and expanding that for My First Home for the Holidays. What – Tell us about that fund drive.

CALABRESE: Yes, the drive, it’s – Okay, the date of the drive’s going to be December 5th, and it’s going to start 9:00 a.m. And what we are doing is, we are really working with the youth. They’ll be there with us. And we’re going to be collecting household items for My First Home program. My First Home for the Holidays, these items that we’re collecting we’re going to use on December 12th. We’re going to have a celebration party with the youth where they get some mentoring also. They will have volunteers, they’re going to be partnering up with them. And what we do is, we set up Casey Family Center in Old Town as if it was a store, you know, and then they get to go in and they get to shop for new items and things that they want for their home. So it’s really cool because we get to connect with them and we get to hang out and learn more about their lives and, you know, have the one-to-one caring conversation and really see, you know, what they’re all about and help them out. And then we – the things that we might have extra, which we hope we will, you know, we use the rest of the year on My First Home program…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CALABRESE: …to donate to other youth.

CAVANAUGH: Now if somebody wanted to donate to My First Home for the Holidays this Saturday, where would they go?

CALABRESE: They would go to Old Town at Casey Family Programs. It’s 3878 Old Town Avenue. Zip code is 92110.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and what kinds of things again would you be needing?

CALABRESE: Vacuum cleaners…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

CALABRESE: …are the first item that they ask for. And then a set of dishes, coffeemakers, bath towels, sheets, toasters, pillows, comforters.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have a phone number or a website if people want more information?

CALABRESE: Yes, our website is gitfosteryouth.org.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you. That sounds like a great program. Sarah, I wanted to ask you, how – have you taken advantage of this kind of a program? Getting new sheets and…

PAUTER: Absolutely. I was just thinking when she was saying that they need a vacuum cleaner and they need, you know, sheets and we ask them what color they like. I was going over all the things in my kitchen that are from Just In Time: my microwave, which is red. You know, a lot of different things. And I’ll call them – I had an emergency. I – My vehicle broke down, and I rely heavily upon it to get to school and work. And I had $1,000 in auto repair bills and I couldn’t make a bill – one of the bills. And so I called Just In Time and I said, hey, I need a little help to float me over right now. I’m not recovering from this big hit that I just hit to my bank account and they were more than willing to help me.

CAVANAUGH: If, I wonder, how crucial do you think this service is? In other words, do you or someone you know, do you think that you could be where you are today if you didn’t get this kind of help?

PAUTER: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I can say that because it’s the emergency things. It’s the – it’s like the car repair that would have potentially knocked me out of school or I could’ve lost my job if I hadn’t had that covered. Or if I, you know, had to cover that bill with my rent money, I could’ve ended up homeless. It’s just a lot of different things. We have a very, very sensitive equilibrium.

CAVANAUGH: And you know how tight things are for everybody these days, Kathryn, what are you expecting? Are you behind or ahead in your drive for this time this year?

VAUGHN: You know, this drive, we really reached out to the community this year. We have no funds to start with. And so, you know, we’ve started to get help from anywhere from the Thursday Clubs, retirement homes, UCSD just – their youth put on a drive. So I – we’re – we’re thinking big. We have over 200 former foster youth that we need to set a home up for during the entire year so we’re hoping people are going to come out and -- and, you know, that’s – It’s about community. You know, all of the different people calling in, the Dollars for Scholars, we – our youth need everybody. We’re all so very important to them. And so that’s just one way that you can make a difference and help our youth.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all very much for talking with us today. Kathryn Vaughn, Caroline Calabrese and Sarah Pauter, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

PAUTER: Thank you.

VAUGHN: Thank you for having us.

CALABRESE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know the My First Home for the Holidays collection day is this Saturday, December 5th at 3878 Old Town Avenue. For more information, you can – if you jotted it down, you can do the website or the phone number or you can just go to KPBS.org/TheseDays. Thanks to everyone who called. If we didn’t get you on the line, go to KPBS.org/TheseDays to post your comments. And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.

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