What happens when foster children ‘age out’ of the system?

By Christine Mahoney

When times are hard and the foundation of a carefully planned life starts to crumble, you can sometimes look back and identify the breaking point—an illness, a job loss, a change in living situation, a death in the family. For April Anders, it was every one of those.

When April was 6 or 7 years old, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer—along with her older brother and her mother. They all had surgery and survived, but the cancer had spread in her mother and brother. Then, April’s father died in a motorcycle accident, which “destroyed” her mom, emotionally and physically. “She was depressed, the cancer took over her body, she was on pain medication, she had chemotherapy and radiation,” recalls April, now a petite 21-year-old with long, dark hair. April’s mother died when she was 15, and she and her brother moved in with their aunt. “We got off to a pretty rocky start,” April says. “My mom and my aunt didn’t have the best relationship, and she was basically a stranger to us.”

April now lives at Polaris House, a transitional-living program that provides a home for Boulder County youth who “age out” of the foster, kinship and other traditional community support systems when they turn 18. The journey to Boulder’s Polaris House was a long one, but the path has led April to Boulder County’s many resources for youth in transition—the “gap” kids who can no longer take advantage of the state’s foster care services and other support systems, because, at 18, they’re too old.

How Kids End Up in Bad Places

For those gap kids, the realities are sobering. According to the National Youth in Transition database, 464 youth were discharged at age 18 from the state of Colorado Foster and Kinship system last year. Of those, only half remain employed once they’re on their own. Not even one in 10 gets public housing assistance. And when these young people aren’t working and aren’t getting help paying rent in costly housing markets like Boulder, they can easily wind up on the streets.

“They get priced out of the rental market and just can’t afford it here,” says Nia Wassink, executive director of Voices for Children Boulder County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). Set adrift without family support or the hope of a college education, these young people start to lose the one thing they do have: a permanent connection to the adults in their lives. “High-risk behaviors go way up,” says Wassink. Once discharged, close to 40 percent wind up incarcerated, nearly 20 percent are referred to a state agency for substance abuse, and about 10 percent report having children of their own, according to the same database.

Wassink calls these gap kids “opportunity youth,” because she sees a chance for a better life. So does Eric Schulz, executive director of Realities for Children Boulder County (RFCBC). The organization’s scholarships benefit CASA kids, including three this year. RFCBC, a nonprofit alliance of local businesses working to serve the needs of children who have been abused or neglected or are otherwise at risk, was founded by Schulz in 2012, modeled somewhat after Realities for Children in Fort Collins, founded nearly two decades ago.

“I had a bit of a challenging growing-up myself. I can empathize with these kids,” he says. After years serving at-risk youth in a career that began in the mid-1980s, Schulz says, he wanted to focus more on prevention. He quickly realized that the lack of services for youth discharged from the system at age 18 was a formula for failure. “To invest so many resources into these kids, sometimes since birth, and then ‘drop’ them at age 18 is tragic. Imagine any of us, if our parents had said on our 18th birthday, ‘Move out, you’re on your own’—what would we have done? It’s a moral imperative to do better for these kids.”

A Vacant House Becomes a Home

In 2002, Schulz became aware of an opportunity to do just that: He saw potential in a vacant house in north Boulder. Partnering with Boulder County Housing and Human Services, Schulz opened Polaris House in 2003. Initially, it was a foster-care group home for boys aged 12 to 16. But Schulz continued to grow frustrated by the foster-care system’s rule that kids had to leave on their 18th birthdays. “It didn’t matter if they had graduated high school or not,” he says. “It just felt immoral to ask these kids to leave.” By 2006, Schulz had abandoned the traditional foster-care model and created his own.

Now, Schulz and houseparent Kim Griffis run Polaris House as a co-ed program serving kids as young as 16, although most residents are 18 to 24. Residents pay reduced rent; the home is owned and leased to RFCBC by Boulder Housing Partners, a group Schulz says has always supported his mission. “Residents don’t have to leave Polaris House when they turn 18,” says Schulz. Meaning they can maintain their connections with supportive adults, maintain a stable living environment and look more positively toward the future.  

RFCBC focuses the bulk of its resources on education, which Schulz says is often the point at which these kids can turn their lives around. “Their stories are about their past. Their education is about their future. And as a community, their future is our future,” says Schulz. Traditionally, only two in 10 of these transition-age youth receive financial aid for educational expenses, once they “age out” of the state foster care system. According to Schulz, less than 5 percent of former foster youth graduate from college. It’s quite a different story at Polaris House, where all four of the current residents are enrolled in higher education, all with goals of receiving diplomas.

April is one of them. She’s enrolled at Front Range Community College’s Interpreter Preparation program, and hopes to one day earn her master’s degree in deaf education at CU Boulder. Her tuition is funded through RFCBC monies and federal student aid.

“It means everything,” April says of Polaris House. “It’s a stable living environment. I like my roommates. Hopefully I’ll live there until I graduate and get my feet on the ground.” Along with school, April is on staff at Realities, and also works at Boulder County Housing and Human Services as a “youth voice,” providing her perspective at meetings about youth in transition, on both the local and state levels. She’s helping to create a guide to services for other Boulder County transitional youth.

By all accounts, April is a shining example of the success that can be achieved by paying careful attention to life’s foundations—a safe place to call home, supportive adults and help with educational expenses. When youth are unable to shore up these foundations themselves, Schulz’s Realities for Children Boulder County and other agencies can help fill the gaps.

“Ideally, in a perfect world, we’re born into a family that’s healthy and happy, where all our physical and emotional needs are met,” he says. “When that’s not the case, we adapt and learn.” And, in this case, help.

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Christine Mahoney, a freelance writer and former TV anchor, is the internship/career coordinator for CU’s Journalism & Mass Communication program.

 

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