(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) T'Kara Plater, Sarah Oran and Derek Reid were among the more than 25 foster youths and advocates who testified on Jan. 22.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Washington Post Columnist Petula Dvorak covered the preparation of this hearing in her column, Normal Teens, Except for their Heartbreaking Circumstances. The article below is a follow-up to that hearing.

While most 18 year olds are preparing for prom or the college experience, Derek Reid is just trying to survive. He’s been in the D.C. foster care system for three years, lives in a group home on Capitol Hill and is on his third social worker.

If that’s not enough, Reid has three years to get his survival strategy together before he ages out and the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) cuts its supports. “I want to live in a nice setting with someone I can depend on and trust. But no one, including my social worker, has helped me find that,” Reid told Council Member Tommy Wells at a hearing Jan. 22 in the John A. Wilson Building. “If I age out of the system without family, I am not sure where I will be or how I will take care of myself.”

That day, Reid joined more than 25 foster youth, community-based organizations and service providers trying to change that.  “Yes Youth Can: Confronting the Challenges of Aging Out,” which boast was the first-ever youth-led hearing, examined the experiences and challenges of older youth in the D.C. foster care system, the effectiveness of programs and services for this group and how to improve their life prospects once they leave the system on their 21st birthday.

Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, turned over power of the nearly-five-hour hearing to 14 youth from the Young Women’s Project, a DC-based nonprofit that builds youth leaders. Last Friday’s hearing focused on three main points: aging out, education and employment, and congregate care.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Council Member Tommy Wells assisted by Brittany Silver and Trey Jones, youth staff from the Young Women's Project.

These issues effect more than 2,260 DC youth in out-of-home care, according to data released by CFSA in May 2009. In three years, Reid will be among the 150-200 youth turning 21 and aging out of the system annually without a permanent legal relationship.

That time will come even sooner for Loretta Singletary, who has only a year to get it together. She’s looking forward to leaving the system. “It gives me a chance to experience the real feeling of being on my own, paying bills, staying on a monthly budget, keeping and having good credit,” said the 20-year-old, who’s been in foster care for six years.

During that time, she bounced between two foster homes before landing in a group home. While at her second foster home, Singletary and her younger sister enjoyed their foster family. But she longed for her mother and set out to find her when she got her mother’s phone number from an old neighbor. “When I told my foster mom I found my mom, she said that she could not call me on her telephone,” said Singletary, who received good grades throughout middle school.

She had problems when she started high school. “I couldn’t focus there because I was still confused about being in the foster care system,” Singletary said. To make matters worse, she and her sister came home from school one day to find their foster mom had washed and packed their clothes. “She told us that she could not keep teenagers and the next day my sister and I were separated,” said the foster youth, who ended up in a group home shortly after.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Foster youth, Loretta Singletary, testifies.

Now, she lives in an Independent Living Program (ILP), where she’s been for the past two years. After dealing with gossiping counselors and not trusting the staff, Singletary’s ready to leave the system and get her own place when she turns 21 on Dec. 12, 2010. “Right now, I continue to save money in my bank account, work towards my high school diploma, research apartments in my budget and look for a part-time job,” said Singletary, who wants to be a Crime Scene Investigator. “When I turn 21 I want to be ready and follow my transition plan.”

But some service providers say that’s easier said than done. “Transitioning into adulthood is not something you…accomplish over six months,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to children and families and foster caregivers in the District of Columbia. She added that it’s an ongoing process that requires supportive relationships involving capable adults for a smoother transition.

To hear T’Kara Plater put it, her adult life came sooner than she expected. Before she entered the system two years ago, the 18-year-old was responsible for raising her brothers and sisters. Since then, Plater recalled her experiences in the foster care system as something “one cannot imagine.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Foster youth, T'Kara Plater, testifies.

What she didn’t have to imagine were arguments with staff members, having her freedom restricted, her stuff used without permission and her belongings stolen with no effort made to replace them. Her conclusion? “Some staff [members] are not trained properly to work with youth,” Plater said. “Things are hard enough as it is and I am still working around the fact that I am living in places with strangers.”

Having had it hard most of her life, Plater’s convinced she’ll survive once she ages out. But the will, alone, is not enough. Most youth leave the foster care system without the necessary knowledge, skills and supports to be self-sufficient, according to CFSA’s 2008 “Quality Improvement Administration Report.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Some advocates boasted that the event was the 'first-ever' youth-led hearing.

While 40 percent have their high school diploma and 10 percent are enrolled in college, the report showed that only 14 percent have all the necessary resources to support themselves once they’re discharged from the system. But Reid was determined not to be among those grim statistics.

After graduating from H.D. Woodson Senior High School last year, he earned a $50,000 scholarship with the help of his educational advocate at the District of Columbia College Access Program. Despite these efforts, Reid’s fall semester at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., was a rough one.

He said he spent that semester playing catch up since his social worker wasn’t there to help him when he got his books late. “Social workers are our guardians, and it is important that they stay in contact with us because they can’t support us if they don’t know us,” Reid said, adding that his educational advocate at CFSA has not been in touch with him. After community college, he plans to study art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in D.C.

Council Member Wells and CFSA’s Executive Director Roque Gerald, Ph.D., tried to wrap their heads around the testimonies.  Addressing Gerald, the councilmember said, “I know that hearing some of these testimonies had to be disappointing to you.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Dr. Roque Gerald, executive director of the Child and Family Services Agency, speaks with his staff.

Gerald agreed, especially when he heard another part of Reid’s testimony. After unsuccessfully trying to contact his social worker, Reid forged her signature so he could take part in a college program.

Among the executive director’s list of proposed changes for his agency was an “outcome-practice model” that requires no decision be solely made by social workers.

When youth enter foster care, they have many separations, Wells noted. “They lose their connections to their family, to the community, to their siblings, to the last school they attended,” he continued. “They’ve had so many separations, and then to hear the agency continue with separations that are unplanned and not supported is very disappointing.”

To prevent that from happening in the future, Gerald proposed beefing up CFSA’s youth advisory board to give the agency advice on policies, on structure and ways that CFSA can improve and produce better outcomes.

Wells said they could start with their social workers’ supervisors. “I believe from some weaknesses [within CFSA] we’ve seen before that it’s a continuing indictment on your supervisors,” the councilmember said. “It’s a well-resourced agency, historically.” Wells added, “We have continuing concern about the lack of quality supervision at the agency.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Council Member Tommy Wells is assisted by Ravon Stewart and Trey Jones, youth staff of the Young Women's Project.

Sandalow, with the Children’s Law Center, and Holland, with the Sankofa Youth and Family Services, also had suggestions. For starters, CFSA could develop an array of services and supports that can be accessed for teenagers. The agency could also work to strengthen relationships between foster teens and the important adults in their lives.

There’s also the Adoption Reform Amendment Act of 2009, introduced by Councilmembers Wells, Michael Brown and Phil Mendelson, that would increase the financial assistance foster parents receive from the District to help with additional costs of raising a child.

Currently, DC’s adoption assistance ends when the child turns 18, while foster care assistance continues until the child turns 21. Under the new bill, adoption assistance would be extended until the child turns 21.  The bill would also extend assistance for another form of permanent placement known as guardianship, which is a form of legal custody for foster children.

These issues will be further examined at an oversight hearing scheduled for Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, Holland had a way of preventing frustration among foster youth who emancipate. “Youths who are 16 years and older,” she said, “should be taught measurable life skills and social skills to prepare them for moving forward.”

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