Pushing Foster Children Off the Plank 

Kayla Gordon was emancipated from foster care during California's budget crisis. It wasn't easy.

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But budget cuts have hurt these programs, just as they have so many social services statewide. Two years ago, the Independent Living Skills Program provided classes or activities four nights a week and every other weekend. Now they're only offered twice a week.

Budget cuts eliminated another program that gave small stipends to 18- to 21-year-olds. The money helped former foster youth make ends meet when they didn't get all their hours at work or came up short on rent or utilities. The stipend money — from $50 to $500 — also could be used for job-interview attire or fixing a car needed to get to work or school. This safety net was eliminated last year, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $80 million from the Child Welfare Services budget.

Cutbacks also are being felt in a nine-year-old state-funded program called the Transitional Housing Program for Emancipated Foster/Probation Youth. It's open to 18- to 24-year-olds who can participate in the program for up to two years. Most enter early, when they're eighteen to twenty years old, and the kind of help they receive depends on where they live; most transitional housing providers place young adults in low-cost apartments where they live on their own or with a roommate. But because of budget limitations, this option is open to fewer than 10 percent of those who are eligible, and cutbacks have made it even less accessible. Last year, 1,700 young adults had such housing, but as of April that figure had fallen to 1,400.

As more and more of their peers are moving back in with mom and dad to ride out the recession, opportunities are disappearing for former foster kids who lack parents on whom to rely. Graves recently looked at the waiting list for one of the transitional housing providers in Contra Costa County. Its 36 placements were taken, and more than 90 were in line behind them. Looking at the names on the waiting list, he saw some who are still in foster care — case workers encourage them to sign up early — but most have aged out. One was couch surfing or sleeping in a car, and another was in a homeless shelter. Others stayed with relatives on a temporary basis, or continued to live with foster families even though the funding for them was gone.

"Our youths' lives don't stop because there's a wait list," Graves said.

Kayla is social, and that's part of what brought her to Bible study at the Chris Adams Girls Center. The group leader was Terri Jennings, a firm, affectionate middle-aged lay minister. They met when Kayla was thirteen, and during the two years Kayla lived at Chris Adams, they became close. Jennings has two children who are about ten years older than Kayla, but Kayla made such an impression that Jennings considered becoming a foster parent.

Then another woman, a juvenile hall counselor, quit her job to become Kayla's foster parent, and Kayla and Jennings lost touch. It was that counselor who took Kayla on her first family vacation, but the arrangement ended badly, and Kayla blames herself for screwing it up. Without going into detail, she simply said that at that point in her life she wasn't able to accept the idea that someone genuinely wanted to help her.

That was Kayla's last placement with a foster family. She lived in group homes next, one in Hayward and one in Fremont, and spent her final six months in the shared apartment in Antioch.

Barbara Colton, 61, was Kayla's social worker from the time she was sixteen to eighteen. She said Kayla had trouble following rules — she didn't necessarily do anything bad, but she was a "wild child" with her own ideas.

Teague recalled that when Kayla emancipated in January 2008, things were very chaotic. She said the date Kayla had to be out of the apartment kept changing. But Colton remembered it another way. She said the date wasn't the problem; Kayla was. The young woman was in denial about her deadline, even as her birthday approached. After all, she had to move out of her Antioch apartment by the evening before she turned eighteen.

After Kayla finally left, she spent four months bouncing from place to place. The rented room didn't work out, and neither did staying with her boyfriend's family.

In May 2008, through the Transitional Housing Program, Kayla secured an apartment run by Catholic Charities in Pittsburg. She stayed there until February 2009, and then she got her own place, a studio in the same town for $585 a month.

Kayla managed to stay in school through all of this, taking classes at a community college. Because she grew up in foster care, she received federally funded grants that help former foster youth get a college education. Those helped pay the bills, but sometimes weren't sufficient. She also had a job in telemarketing, but she worked on commission, and often didn't earn enough to make ends meet. To stay afloat, she sometimes borrowed money from Teague.


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