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Little Rock nonprofit helps youth aging out of foster care

October 10, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The girl Eric Gilmore saw waiting at the bus stop one day more than 10 years ago had just turned 18. She had one bag of clothes, a bus ticket to Fort Smith and enough bipolar medication to last one night.

And, suddenly, she was alone. After years in Arkansas’ foster care system, she had aged out.

“That was her transition into being an adult,” said Gilmore, a community activist and one of the founders of a nonprofit to help young people with housing and life planning. “The thing that was flooding our minds the whole time was, ‘Why isn’t somebody doing something?’”

In the decade-plus since Gilmore saw the teen at the bus stop, the number of foster care children who age out of the state’s care has remained steady at between 200 and 250 a year. There is a dearth of state data on what happens to these young people once they are on their own, but national studies paint a grim picture.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20 percent of all youths who age out of foster care immediately become homeless. One in four doesn’t graduate from high school. Half develop dependencies on drugs or medication.

The population is vulnerable, Gilmore said, and officials in the Little Rock community are working to help them bridge the gap between foster care and adult self-sufficiency.

Nationally, more than 17,000 of the more than 428,000 young people in the foster care system in 2016 aged out, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about our teenagers,” said Mischa Martin, director of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services. “A lot of times when we talk about our older youths, we highlight the negative — the kids who may end up incarcerated or homeless. But what we’ve experienced is when kids have supports in place, they really do well.”

In short, youths in foster care need to form relationships that will outlive their time in the system, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette .

By most conventional measures, Stefan Specht was lucky when he aged out of state foster care in 2015. An inheritance from his father meant that he could find an apartment and, at least for a while, be safe.

Less than 18 months later, however, the money had run out, he had lost 80 pounds and he had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn.

“I realized the full depth of what I’d done,” Specht said. “I realized I was actually alone.”

His parents died when he was young. His only relatives had been absent for years. And he never stayed in a foster home or care facility long enough to build real relationships.

“There are two things you need to know about foster kids,” Specht said. “Nobody talks about us because they don’t know about us. And those who do know of us think of us as problematic. They don’t realize that those behaviors are from years of condensed trauma from institutionalization.”

The reality, Specht said, is that the youths who age out of foster care have been raised with every relationship at arm’s length. Instead of a consistent home, Specht said many such youths live surrounded by institution walls and chain-link fences.

Instead of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, they have caretakers, guardians and “people who are paid to take care of us, not love us,” he said.

“We’re not bad kids,” Specht said. “We just have no idea how to function in the world.”

Shirley Smothers, the foster care and homelessness liaison for the Harrison School District, said a lack of connections with people outside of the foster care system leaves many aged-out youths incredibly vulnerable.

“Foster children that age out, if they have not really formed a bond or relationship with their foster families and they can’t go back to their home ... a lot of times they just have a hard time because they don’t have anywhere to go and they become homeless,” Smothers said. “When you don’t have that, something could happen to them. ... They’re a very young adult, and they’re trying to make it without any assistance.”

At the end of 2017, there were 5,113 children in foster care in Arkansas and 222 were on track to age out, according to records from the Division of Children and Family Services.

Data on how many, if any, Arkansas youths who have aged out of the system are imprisoned or become homeless were not available.

Martin said youths who have families or outside support services to fall back on are often able to go to college or get jobs after high school. One youth, aging out of foster care this year, has a scholarship to go to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We’re really trying to change the culture at DCFS to encourage those kinds of connections. Historically, we’ve been a little closed off,” Martin said.

In 2008, the Federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act allowed states the option of extending foster care beyond age 18.

Children in foster care in Arkansas can opt to receive extended care until they are 21, with the approval of a transition team.

In a report to the Washington State Office of Financial Management’s Statistical Analysis Center, researchers found that youths who choose extended foster care are less likely to be arrested within one year of leaving the system, but only a small portion of such youths choose to participate in extended care.

“They lack those long-term connections,” Martin said. “Any human deserves a lifelong support — someone to go to at Christmas. It really is a last resort if we walk out of your life at 21, and we don’t have people around you to help you into adulthood.”

Martin said the Division of Children and Family Services has begun encouraging staff members to form connections with the kids, welcoming outside mentors, offering life skills classes and asking youths to participate in “normal kid activities” just so they can make connections outside the system.

“Maybe not everybody is suited to be a foster parent, but mentoring might be something they can do,” said Marci Manley, deputy chief of communications for the Division of Children and Family Services. “That’s something we’ve tried to focus on from a public perspective, that there are ways you can help these kids.”

Complicating the transition to adulthood, Martin said, is that almost every youth in the foster care system has experienced some form of trauma, which in some cases can have lasting effects on their mental health.

Whether the youth was abused, orphaned or was moved into foster care for another reason, Martin said the change is never easy.

“We’re always concerned about the long-term stability of our youth because if they’re in foster care, they’ve experienced some kind of trauma to get there,” Martin said.

For Specht, a “cocktail of anxiety, depression and personality disorder” has hampered him from getting or keeping jobs or staying in social circles for long.

“We aren’t able to see the full scope of what we’re going through,” Specht said. “The chaos is normal — until you leave.”

Specht explained that his transition into adulthood was like a lizard that grows spikes to protect itself. Eventually, he said, he understood that his protection mechanisms were also pushing people away.

“I realized I was fighting a battle on two fronts: Emotional and external,” Specht said. “When you get poor enough, you realize that all of the stuff you can acquire can’t feed you. You realize nothing matters unless you work for it.”

Specht said when he realized he needed help, he turned to Immerse Arkansas, a housing and life-planning nonprofit in Little Rock. He said he had met Gilmore, who founded the organization with his wife, Kara, while he was still in foster care, but he initially resisted their help after aging out.

“They kept asking and kept asking, and finally got a yes,” Specht said.

Immerse Arkansas has a walk-in center on the 5300 block of Asher Avenue in Little Rock where homeless, at-risk and recently aged-out youths can go for shelter, to meet other youths and to form life plans.

The facility, which was once a nightclub, has washers and dryers and a small kitchen. Computers are set up along a back wall so people can look for housing, jobs or work on their resumes.

Immerse offers housing opportunities for youths who need a temporary home while they get on their feet, and a team of “recruiters” who reach out to young adults in homeless shelters, at soup kitchens and in church services.

Immerse has game nights and group activities so youths can build relationships. On the black walls of the building, youths have written their hopes for the future.

Gilmore said Immerse Arkansas is meant to be a place, “where youth want to be and feel wanted,” and where young adults who may have traumatic experiences in their pasts can begin to heal.

“Nobody deserves what they go through,” Gilmore said of the youths. “I tell them all the time, ‘You deserve better than what you get.’”

Specht, now 23, said he’s made progress at Immerse. Gilmore calls him an “all-star” of the program.

Specht recently represented foster youths in Washington, D.C., as a representative for the National Foster Youth Institute. He has several scholarships lined up to attend the University of Arkansas’ Pulaski Technical College, where he plans to major in business.

“A lot of people don’t trust Immerse at first,” Specht said. “But over time, you realize that they really do care about you.”

The connections he’s made now, he said, have allowed him to start building a life. In many ways, Specht said, he’s lucky.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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