Foster Care Graduates Get Boost to Independence
The transition from childhood to adulthood is never easy. But imagine doing it all alone, with no one to give you advice, help pay unexpected bills, or welcome you back if things don’t work out the first time you venture out of the nest.
Dozens of Montana foster care youth face that lonely prospect each year, as they turn 18 and "graduate" from the foster care system. Fortunately for them, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and Student Assistance Foundation sponsor a program that will help them become self-sufficient.
The Montana Foster Care Independence Program offers a variety of services, including job and life skills training, emotional support, and money to help pay for living expenses and post-secondary education.
On July 24-26, the program will host a Foster Care Summer Camp at Carroll College in Helena. Participants will learn skills they need to succeed in college, including money management, effective communication, and computer skills. Each student will receive a computer to take to college this fall.
"Studies show that most children don’t fully become independent from their families until age 26," said Heather Winters, manager of the program. "Yet, it used to be, when a foster child turned 18, they were given a stipend and shown the door, even if they were still in high school. There was no safety net for them. They graduated from foster care with no resources and no permanent connections."
The result, she said, was a population of young people with dubious futures.
A study conducted in 2000 found that, four years after leaving foster care, fewer than one in five young adults was completely self-supporting. One in four had spent time living on the streets, 42 percent had become parents, and 46 percent had never finished high school. Statistics also show that, for every foster care placement a child experiences, they lose four months of academic preparation.
The Foster Care Independence Program is aimed at youth ages 16 to 21. It was created after the passage of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 and is funded primarily through a federal grant. The state works to provide most services through local programs and tribal entities, such as the Student Assistance Foundation and the Tumbleweed Program, which has offices in Billings, Butte, Helena, Great Falls, and Missoula.
Participants undergo a life skills assessment to identify their strengths and needs. This becomes the framework for a transitional living plan designed to guide them on the road to independence. They may also be assigned an adult mentor who can provide emotional support and assistance.
Foster youth can get up to $5,000 a year for college tuition or other training programs. The funds are not taken into account when determining eligibility for other grants or tuition waivers.
Other services include:
• Computer and other life skills training.
• Incentive payments to finish high school or get a GED equivalency credential.
• Financial help with driver’s education and/or travel to educational, apprenticeship, or job sites.
• Financial help with setting up an apartment or paying room and board.
"This program provides a bridge from foster care to adulthood," Winters said. "It’s not intended to support foster youth. It’s to help them learn to support themselves.
"Many of these youth have been in the system for a long time," she added. "They’ve had many foster placements. They’ve gone to many schools. And that kind of unsettled existence tends to put them at a disadvantage.
"This program gives them an advantage, for a change."
More information about the Foster Care Independence Program is available by calling the DPHHS Child and Family Services Division at 444-5900 or Student Assistance Foundation at 495-7750.
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