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Aged Out

New program helps foster kids become independent adults.

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Adrian Sanchez knows the foster-care system from the inside out. For the last six years, the former foster child has been a volunteer with the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Memphis and Shelby County, working with abused and neglected children.

But he knows their problems don't stop just because the kids grow up.

"He's not really progressing," Sanchez says of a 19-year-old who has been in the foster-care system since he was a toddler. "He's trying but the support just isn't there. The phone calls are always coming in: 'I need advice.' 'I'm in a bind.' They're not given tools to live on their own."

Last year, about 600 18- to 21-year-olds were emancipated from, or "aged out," of the foster-care system statewide.

The reality is that many of them trade one system for another: 20 percent end up in jail or prison within 12 months of their 18th birthday; 60 percent of the young women who age out of foster care have a baby within two years.

According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, in the year after they age out of foster care, 75 percent of young women and 33 percent of young men had to receive government benefits to meet their basic needs.

"The statistics are not good when it comes to kids who are exiting the foster-care system," says Keisha Walker, executive director of the local CASA office. "Some of the issues they face include incarceration, becoming victims of crime themselves, and mental-health problems. A lot of them become early parents."

CASA's primary mission is to provide unbiased volunteers to advocate for and serve the best interests of a neglected or abused child. CASA volunteers are assigned to a child until they have a safe, permanent home — whether by being reunited with their biological families, getting adopted, or finding a permanent guardian. However, that doesn't always happen.

Once they turn 18, children can stay in foster care if they decide to continue onto college or vocational training. But even those who stay in school — and the system — until they are 21 are no more likely than their younger counterparts to get a college degree. In fact, the Jim Casey initiative found that extending care to age 21 reduced homelessness before age 21 but did not prevent it after that.

Earlier this year as part of a national CASA initiative, the local nonprofit was awarded $75,000 for Fostering Futures, a pilot program to address the challenges faced by youth in the process of leaving foster care and becoming independent adults.

"In a crisis, who do you call? Usually we call our parents," Walker says. "Our kids don't always have that resource."

Even those young adults CASA considers success stories — those who go to college — face special challenges. When everyone goes home for winter break and the dorms close, they don't always have a place to go.

"For a month and a half, they might be homeless," Walker says. "They might hang out with friends or stay in shelters. Sometimes they're just trying to make it day by day."

Based on a research model from the University of Michigan, the pilot program teaches foster youth how to access the health-care system, find housing, prepare for a career, and even how to balance a checkbook.

"Not only are we trying to create a different outcome for kids in terms of the resources they need to transition to adulthood, we're looking at how we can effectively ensure they have family resources," Walker says.

Under the program, CASA hopes to recruit and train 75 new volunteers to work with foster youth. In addition to teaching basic life skills, CASA volunteers will counsel the young adults on setting goals and how to achieve them.

Walker hopes the program will instill a sense of potential in the youth.

"They cannot envision greater possibilities beyond their current circumstances," she says. "They just see themselves as foster children."

Sanchez's mother gave up her parental rights when he was 8 and his older brother was 10. He says he was told he was disposable his entire childhood.

"What was missing in my life and my brother's life was love. Nobody hugged you. Nobody kissed you," he says. "These kids aren't disposable."

Though he lacked family support, he says he's made a life for himself through the grace of God. But that's perhaps exactly the reason why he works with CASA.

"There was no coach, no teacher, no parents, no aunties. Nobody intervened when they knew abuse and neglect was going on," he says. "You've got to intervene."

CASA will begin training its next class of volunteers August 16th. The class after that will begin October 4th. For more information, call 522-0200.

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff/.

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