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June 2015Vol. 16, No. 5Associate Commissioner's Page

The following is the monthly message from JooYeun Chang, the Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau. Each message focuses on the current Children's Bureau Express Spotlight theme and highlights the Bureau's work on the topic.

Transitioning from youth into adulthood is an important, and often confusing, stage in everyone's life. For youth in foster care, it can be an especially challenging time. Youth in foster care who are transitioning to independent living often must do so without the supports that youth who are not in care may have. This can include a lack of permanent and meaningful connections to family or other caring adults, or difficulty finding safe and stable housing.

This month, I would like to share the second half of my interview with Athena, a young woman formerly in care whose story illustrates the challenges often faced by youth in transition. The first half of our conversation was featured in CBX's May 2015 National Foster Care Month issue. Athena first entered foster care at the age of 8 and again at 14. She remained in care and experienced a number of placements until she was adopted at age 19. Although Athena now has the stability and permanence with her adoptive family that she craved as a child, the years leading up to her adoption were filled with the uncertainty of a young person facing adulthood without a permanent support structure. This month, Athena shares with us her experiences as an older youth in foster care preparing for adulthood.

Joo: Previously, you mentioned that you were never consulted about your wishes as far as case plan goals or a permanency plan. What about a transition plan? Did your caseworker work with you to create a plan to help you transition to independent living?

Athena: I never really had a transition plan, at least nothing written down. The goal was that I would enter transitional housing at age 21. When I turned 18, I was in panic mode. I worked to save every penny to create a cushion to fall back on. I was scared—I was in a temporary environment with little supervision, and many kids might have turned to drugs or gotten into other bad things. But I wanted to get my ducks in a row so I would be ready for when I turned 18 and might be homeless. However, my foster mother at the time helped me find a foster home through the Five Acres organization that was willing to care for me until age 21, so I applied for extended foster care assistance in my home State of California. I actually ended up being adopted by this last foster family.

Joo: Were you provided all of your important documents, like a State ID/driver's license, Social Security card, birth certificate, contact information for family members, health and education records, etc.?

Athena: When I started working at age 16, I needed to get a Social Security card and drivers permit, and I got those on my own. When I got adopted, my caseworker handed me a huge file with my immunization records, birth certificate, etc. I found that they were very organized about it, and that was helpful.

Joo: There is new legislation (such as the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act) that aims to promote normalcy for children and youth in foster care. You mentioned that you have two younger siblings, whom you were separated from when you all entered foster care. It seems that you and your siblings have had very different experiences. How have these differences around normalcy and the lack of a clear transition plan affected you and your siblings?

Athena: Mine was not a normal childhood. I had more than 10 placements from the time I was 14 years old. I witnessed too much, dealt with depression and anxiety, and was put on medication for it. But because I went through those things, I knew how to help my siblings direct their path. I was proactive about my relationship with them and made sure they were kept together. They feel less isolated being together, and they can rely on each other. When I was my sister's age and in foster care, I was in a state of panic and survival mode—making sure I made all the right moves and didn't miss opportunities to find supports I needed. I never gave myself the room to have the normal adolescent years, so I feel I missed out. My sister doesn't have that same panic—she is free to be a high school kid, and she knows she has me to fall back on. Because my siblings have been in the same foster home for more than 4 years, they've been able to have more stable relationships. They've had the same friends and other people in their lives, and they have stable supports and relationships to model after.

Joo: Do you have any advice for youth who are or will be transitioning out of foster care?

Athena: I would tell transitioning youth to try and set themselves up in an environment that will facilitate their goals. For example, if your goal is to go to university, try to move into an area close to a university. If you don't know what your goals are yet, think about what you DO know will happen, and prepare yourself for that. Take it one step at a time. If you're going to be emancipated, then prepare for emancipation and gain some stability that way. Once you have some stability, you can reevaluate your goals.

Joo: Do you have any advice for the child welfare professionals working with these youth?

Athena: For caseworkers, I say ask questions. I didn't ask questions when I was in care, so caseworkers need to do that. It's about setting youth up for their future. Know what youth want for their goals. If they don't have concrete goals, reach out and help them create goals. Some youth may resent being told what the best option is for them, instead of being asked. They're more likely to follow a plan and succeed if they've had a say in it. The youth I've talked to say they felt like the foster care system failed them when they had to emancipate. Foster care shouldn't be permanent—it should be a temporary solution.