Samantha Smith was 13 when she first left home for the streets of Folsom. Living in and out of foster care, she was driven from homes by conflict and turbulence and returned only when in need of food or clothing.
When strife recurred, she would leave again for longer and longer stretches.
“Home life was really bad, and I was getting into a lot of trouble,” says Smith, now 18. “So it was a lot easier to just leave and not come home. It started just days at a time, and then weeks, and then weeks turned into months and months turned into years. ”
Smith found solace in friends, drugs and alcohol, staying awake for days on end, crashing on acquaintances’ couches and, at a particularly low point, in a tent in the woods. She had resigned herself to a life bereft of structure or hope for a stable future.
At 17, she fled after a two-week stay in a Sacramento group home, was caught and incarcerated, then ended up in Sacramento County’s juvenile hall. That episode led to a connection with Koinonia Homes for Teens, a Loomis-based residential treatment program of Koinonia Family Services that works with foster youth across California.
Smith was unaware that dramatic changes were coming, the impact of which would stretch far beyond her immediate world.
“At first I wasn’t going to stay, but then I got here,” Smith says. “I think I cried my first few days just seeing how much everybody loved each other and cared about each other. It’s nice to have people who actually know what it’s like.”
Though many foster children find themselves in healthy, caring environments, many face drug abuse, trauma and neglect before they turn 18 and “age out” of the foster care system. Foster teens, often with little hope of being adopted, face obstacles to meeting even basic needs while trying to become self-sufficient; money, housing, employment, education and a continued support system through their early years of adulthood are hard to come by.
A March 2010 study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found almost 30 percent of former foster youth admitted to being homeless for at least one night after emancipation. Nationally, roughly half fail to graduate from high school.
Smith is one of 36 foster youth who live at Koinonia Homes for Teens. Most of the 700 foster youth who go through the family-services program annually are placed in adoptive homes. Residents live at one of six facilities staffed 24 hours a day by agency personnel who deal with drug and alcohol treatment, gang affiliation and other issues foster teens face.
“I only deal with teenagers, so there’s not a big hope for adoption here,” says Bill Ryland, who has been a Home for Teens administrator for 12 of his 25 years with the agency. “Our goal is shooting for a functional adult. I need to get them ready to go out on their own.”
Ryland concedes that many youth “earned” their way to Koinonia, but many come from dysfunctional homes where drug addiction and untreated mental illness contribute greatly to the children’s problems.
“Family is the No. 1 thing we deal with,” he says. But though drug and alcohol recovery is a major focus for the center, it’s only a part of the substantial preparation foster youth require before they age out.
There are more than 420,000 youth currently in foster care in the United States and more than 60,000 in California, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports. Of these individuals, more than 5,000 are emancipated each year regardless of whether they are adequately prepared.
Efforts continue to help smooth the transition to independence.
State Assembly Bill 12, signed into law September 2010 as the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, raises the age of eligibility for foster care recipients beyond the current cutoff of 18 to age 21 by 2014. The extra years could ensure individuals within the system have adequate time to prepare for life on the outside.
Sheila Boxley, president and CEO of the Sacramento-based Child Abuse Prevention Center, says the legislation could eliminate an arbitrary age marking the end of foster care.
“I’m a mom and I have two sons, and I daresay that they were not prepared and ready in turning 18 to be completely independent and on their own without any support system,” Boxley says. “Wards of the state have had somewhat less advantages in general and are even more deserving — if not more in need — of those additional opportunities and support.”
The CAP Center is a national umbrella organization for agencies, including the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento, Lift the Children and Prevent Child Abuse California, that influences lawmakers and seeks to aid foster youth and prevent child abuse.
“[AB 12] allows foster youth to continue to be supported and to be successful in their emancipation planning and in their short-term goals, which then lead to long-term goals,” says CAP Center director Stephanie Biegler.
At Koinonia, Ryland has found that, in addition to drug and alcohol treatment and cognitive-behavioral therapy, significant benefits have come from life skills workshops, fiscal literacy training and financial incentives.
Women in Philanthropy is a donor group of the United Way California Capital Region that takes a particularly hands-on approach to supporting foster youth. The group raised more than $70,000 for Koinonia Homes for Teens in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and much of the funding is directed toward fiscal literacy programs and life skills training for foster youth at the center.
“The skills of the future are not the skills of the past, and we have to make a shift there,” says Lisa Watts, WIP volunteer chair and chief of staff of Intel Corp.’s Business Client Development Division. “So when you take a look at the fact that there’s 6,000-plus foster youth in the five-county region of Sacramento at any given time, that’s a population that can either be an asset for our region in the future or it can be a drain on our … economic resources of the future.”
Part of achieving this aim includes incentives for foster youth who earn money for achieving good grades in school, have perfect attendance or complete skills workshops. These “individual deposit accounts” have proven crucial for the kids who will soon be supporting themselves.
“Grade-point average probably went up about a grade-and-a-half once incentives started,” Ryland says. Students who previously received B and C grades realized that straight A’s could bring in $100 bucks. “And they’re actually capable of doing that; they never thought of doing it before. That incentive is a huge recovery tool that we use.”
The CAP Center, which has received funding from WIP since the group’s formation, provides financial training as well as academic support to the kids they help. Biegler finds that education and an understanding of one’s finances are essential for success after emancipation: Last year, 91 percent of foster youth served by the CAP Center graduated from high school, compared with less than 50 percent statewide.
“We know that financial literacy doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Biegler says. “So we make certain that the foster youth we serve graduate from high school, which is critical to financial success.”
Conditions of her probation make Smith eligible to leave Koinonia in January, but she plans to stay and complete the one-year program. She also plans to enroll in college and eventually transfer to a four-year university. More essential, Smith says, is that she has been able to make connections and develop healthy relationships in a way that had been unfamiliar to her.
“In my past, I taught myself not to trust anybody because everybody I trusted ended up hurting me,” Smith says. “It’s really nice to open up, so I don’t just feel like I’m a bottle that’s being shaken.
“I actually built healthy relationships here, and it’s nice to know what that feels like so that when I get out into the real world, I’m going to be able to pick healthy relationships with my friends and family.”
Though she emerges with no guarantees, Smith is breaking a cycle that denies success to many. That, says Ryland, is the true indicator of success.
“I have kids come back four or five years later and tell me they’re still in recovery, they’re showing me their new car, they’re telling me about their new job,” Ryland says. “But when they come back 10 years later, with their spouses and babies, and you see toddlers running around and being healthy and healthy relationships, you go, ‘There it is.’ That’s the true measure of success.”
Chloe Walker doesn’t remember the first time she moved or how many times she had to pack her belongings in flimsy trash bags. But she remembers getting her first suitcase at age 18, when she became too old for the foster system.
Asha Canady’s parents didn’t go to college. Her brothers didn’t make it out of high school. But it was expected, from a young age, that Canady and her twin sister would succeed in higher education.