Foster Care and Homelessness

I’ve since started working for the same hospital that Joshua took his last breath in and it has been such an amazing experience. I work at a clinic that works specifically with the homeless population. This is an extremely vulnerable population that struggles with substance abuse, mental health issues, trauma, and for some, time spent in the foster care system. This is not a new phenomenon, in fact, there is a large number of youth who transition out of foster care and at some point in their lifetimes experience homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015), there are more than 20,000 youth each year that age out of foster care and lose access to their safety nets overnight.

According to a report conducted by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (2014), based on the current research it is estimated that between 11 and 37% of youth who age out of foster care experience homelessness. This number is presented as a gap of information due to the limited amount of research put forth for this population. A lot of people do not realize how critical housing is for individuals, especially youth who are interested in working and attending school. “Because housing stability is intertwined with self-sufficiency, it may be especially important during the transition to adulthood. For instance, young people with stable housing are better able to continue their schooling and maintain gainful employment (Johnson et al., 2010; Sommer et al., 2009), and they find accessing needed physical and mental health care and social services much easier (Wade and Dixon, 2006).”

Federal policies and funding have been put in place to assist youth in finding housing. These programs include The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which focuses on which extends the age of eligibility for Title IV-E child welfare reimbursement from 18 to 21 years old for youth who meet certain criteria. This major policy change enables states that have extended care to age 21 to use Title IV-E funds for this group and gives other states a financial incentive to extend care. As of November 2013, 18 states and the District of Columbia can use federal funds for extending care up to age 21 (Heath, 2013). The act also expands the type of reimbursable dwellings to include supervised independent living settings (such as host homes or college dormitories) (HHS ACF, 2010). The next program is the Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program, which provides funding for independent living services for youth in the foster care system and enables states to use up to 30 percent of Chafee funds on housing subsidies, transitional housing, or other housing-related costs. The next program is the Transitional Living Program, which funds local and state governments, community-based organizations, and tribal entities to provide long-term housing and supportive services to homeless youth ages 16 to 21 who cannot return home. Another program is the Education and Training Voucher Program, which provides up to $5,000 annually to youth eligible for Chafee-funded services who are attending a qualified postsecondary institution. The stipend may be used for housing costs.

According to a report conducted by HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development), “The survey results showed that 47 percent (91 of 195) of PHAs operating FUP had awarded vouchers to former foster youth in the 18 months prior to the survey. Furthermore, PHAs that were serving youth allocated fewer than one-third of their FUP vouchers to youth, on average. Overall, youth constituted only about 14 percent of total FUP program participant. “ Although there is funding, it is not always implemented in the most effective way, which leaves thousands of youth who have transitioned out homeless. There has to be more research and energy placed into identifying protective factors for this population in order to create positive change and to change the trajectory in moving towards decreasing homelessness not only within this population but overall.

Youth who experience disruption and dissolution (Josh’s Story)

I want to begin this post by acknowledging Joshua, as today would have been his 27th birthday. Joshua was statistically a part of something that is not uncommon among older youths who are adopted. His adoption would be considered dissolute. Joshua experienced this as an 8th grader who was 12 years old and lacked a strong support system, forcing him to join many more youths who have been taken out of adoptive placements and thrown back into complex systems.

According to the child welfare information gateway (2012), the term disruption, “describes an adoption process that ends after a child has been placed in an adoptive home before the adoption is legalized, which results in the return of the child to the foster care system or placement with new adoptive parents.” The child welfare information gateway (2012) describes the term dissolution as, “an adoption in which the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and adoptive child is severed, either voluntarily or involuntarily, after the adoption is legally finalized.”

I will never forget the day that my little brother Joshua was separated from me and started his journey to dissolution within our adoptive placement. We were over our cousin’s house, and I waited for Joshua to return to the house so we could go. As Josh came around the corner at his own pace (and for those who knew Josh knew that he walked extremely slow and liked to be on his own time), our adoptive mother called out, “Josh hurry up!” multiple times, and Josh continued to move at his own pace. After repeatedly calling his name, Josh became frustrated and yelled out, “I’m coming B****.” Although Josh’s actions were inappropriate, he had suffered severe trauma, as he was only 12 years old at the time, full of frustration and going through a lot of changes. Our adoptive father jumped on Josh and started attacking him. I attempted to get him off of my little brother, who was much smaller than our adoptive father. The police were called, and my adoptive father reported that Josh had attacked him and his wife. As I sat there and cried, I pleaded for the police not to arrest my brother, but everything at that point was out of my hands. As I watched my little brother get carried away from me, I was helpless, and I went into the bathroom at my cousin’s house and cried on the floor. After this incident, I didn’t see my brother for years.

After asking about my brother, I was told by my adoptive parents that he was doing well and that he had gone to an all boys school. I asked to send letters and to talk to my little brother on the phone, but nothing came from it. It was not until my little brother laid in the ICU fighting for his life after a self-inflicted gunshot wound that, I found out the truth to about what actually happened to my brother. My biological uncle recounted the story of Josh's dissolution experience. I learned that once Josh entered the juvenile justice system, he continued to get into trouble (as most youths do), leading to him being caught in the revolving door of institutionalization. My uncle found out that Josh was in a juvenile detention facility and went to see if he could get him out. Once he located Josh, my uncle spoke with Josh’s case manager and was told that Josh could have been released years ago, but there was nobody that would take Josh because he had no family. What my uncle said next was chilling. He stated that my adoptive parents gave up their rights once Josh was incarcerated, and they would not answer phone calls, send money or provide any resources to Josh while he was locked up.

This news devastated me, and as I sat here with tears in my eye, I realized that my adoptive family had thrown Josh’s life away by forcing him back into a complex foster care system after being adopted. The foster care system had let Joshua down, and so did the people who had taken responsibility for him.

Unfortunately, Joshua is one of many older youths who experience disruption or dissolution. There has not been much research on this topic, and the studies that have been conducted include historical data. One of my goals is to propel myself into a position where I can perform more research on disruption and dissolution to decrease the occurrence of situations such as Josh’s. Disruption and dissolution are not only a domestic issue but an international issue as many children are adopted outside of the United States that often face similar challenges.

Mental Health Awareness With A Focus On Trauma for Youth in Foster Care

Mental health is something that society has stigmatized and essentially pushed away, which has left a lot of folks with a sense of hopelessness. The most important fact about mental health is that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and/or religion can suffer from a mental health illness. Some of the most popular or well-known diagnosis include depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, Schizophrenia, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (just to name a few). Individuals who have spent time in the foster care system have unfortunately been met with higher rates of mental health illnesses and additional barriers, which prevent successful transitions out of the system most of the time. According to a study released by the Harvard Medical School (HMS), the University of Michigan and Casey Family Programs, former foster children are almost twice as likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as U.S. war veterans.

A majority of youth in foster care have been exposed to some sort of trauma, whether it includes neglect, physical assault, sexual assault, secondary trauma, and/or a combination of traumas. According to Sweeton (2017), approximately 50% of the population will experience a traumatic event as some point in their lives. Trauma impacts many parts of the brain, but the three primary parts include the pre-frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the amygdala (Sweeton, 2017). Each of these areas of the brain are in charge of specific functions and once the brain has experienced trauma, these areas of the brain are altered.  Youth in foster care are already at a higher risk for participating in at risk behaviors, which include engaging in drug and alcohol related activities, involvement in the criminal justice system, and higher rates of unprotected sex and pregnancies. Imagine having an altered brain, which would create additional barriers to appropriate decision making.

Another important factor in mental health is that some mental illnesses can be passed down generational through genetics. Diagnosis such as Bi-polar disorder can be passed down from parents to their children, which cause additional issues often within families that are already dysfunctional. Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly two and a half times more likely to seriously consider suicide than other youth (Pilowsky & Wu, 2006). Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly four times more likely to have attempted suicide than other youth (Pilowsky & Wu, 2006).

Youth in foster care and those who are in the process of transitioning out are at a high risk of having mental health issues. Remember that mental health does not only impact those in foster care, so please be considerate of individual’s experiences as well as behaviors that may stem from previous traumatic exposure. Please be an advocate not only for youth in foster care, but for mental health. Some resources have been attached to the bottom.

Thank you for fighting for change!

-Brandon, CEO

Foster Care Culture in Indiana (from my perspective as an Alumnus of Foster Care)

Having been in the Foster Care system in Indiana was both traumatic and exhausting.  Although I entered the system in 1999, much has not changed regarding the foster care system in Indiana, in which youth become lost each and every year. My brother and I entered the foster care system due to familial barriers, which were generational , such as domestic violence, drug abuse, and little to no education. Once we entered the foster care system, things were not better considering  that we were supposed to be protected by the Department of Child and Family Services. Joshua and I both experienced physical abuse and were treated  poorly throughout our stay in foster care. As we navigated throughout the foster care system and were eventually adopted, things continued to get worse. We were adopted by an African American Family. We were constantly reminded that we were "black and nothing else." I entered the foster care system at the age of 9, so I was aware and proud of my ethnicity, yet I was being told that I was not partially white. I struggled with my identity until recently after conducting an ancestry test. Culturally, I was not supported as a youth in foster care and this has had a huge impact on my life. Although I do not blame DCS for everything, there was a lot of bias involved in our case. Being bi-racial and growing up within a White familial system, we were placed into African American Homes. Reflecting back on documents and essentially my life, a lot  of decisions on my placment in foster care was based off of the color of my skin. This is the reality for a lot of children of color in the system and continues to be an issue. Children of color are over represented as youth in foster care compared to their white counter parts. According to the Child Welfare Gate (2018), between 2006 and 2016, Black and Hispanic children represented 43% of the 250, 248 children who were involved in the foster care system. It is important that individuals continue to advocate and to be culturally sensitive to youth in foster care because the impact can last a lifetime.