Youths at foster home learn to succeed
By Kathleen Moore
When Crystal Magielda entered foster care in 1999, she had a 20 percent chance of being homeless and a 50 percent chance of being unemployed once she grew up.
But Magielda wasn’t worried. In the months before her 18th birthday, when most foster children are released from the system, she thought she was ready to be on her own. She was looking forward to getting away from Northeast Parent & Child Society’s home for foster children, where she had lived for five years.
Then Northeast’s Independent Living Services team leader, John Amos, sat down to explain the hurdles she would face.
Within two years of turning 18 and leaving foster care, 10 percent of the nation’s former foster children have been incarcerated and 40 percent are on welfare. In addition to homelessness and unemployment, only 12 percent are in college and 36 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grim statistics leave foster children with the same success rate as high school dropouts, juvenile delinquents and young single mothers.
To beat those odds, Amos offered Magielda a deal. If she agreed to stay in foster care until she turned 21, the oldest a child can be and stay in the system, he would use the funds set aside for her care to give her a firsthand look at independent living.
She is now one of 10 Schenectady foster children who are going to school and working while living on their own in apartments paid for by Northeast.
With a $225,000 budget from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Northeast covers the teens’ rent, utility bills and groceries. The youths, in return, must work part-time while completing high school and starting college or trade school. They also have to save at least half of every paycheck as insurance against homelessness.
Former foster children often become homeless because 18-year-olds rarely have the resources to get an apartment, Amos said. They don’t realize they need enough money to pay the deposit and first month’s rent, as well as fees to start up utilities and phone service. Then they have to buy a bed, a chair, lamps . . . the list goes on and on.
“Most kids do not save money prior to aging out,” Amos said. “Nobody’s going to hand a youth leaving program $2,000 to do all that.”
But three years of savings can do the trick. Magielda, who is about to turn 21, has saved nearly $10,000. She socked away the money through part-time work while attending college.
She’s confident that she will be able to afford to pay her rent while earning her bachelor’s degree after graduating from Schenectady County Community College in the spring.
Amos is confident, too. Studies show that children who do not work before leaving foster care have only a 50 percent chance of holding down a job in the following two years. Those who leave before starting college are 14 times less likely to graduate than the general population. But in his experience, those who do work and attend college succeed after they leave the system.
Of the 18 children who have graduated from Northeast’s independent living program in the past three years, all are employed. At the same time, 90 percent went to college – a huge increase over the national average of 12 percent.
That success did not solely spring from a formula of working and going to school, said program graduate Shane Barrett, 21.
The real key, he said, is that the program gives teens three more years to gain the maturity they need to succeed.
After all, he said, most 18-year-olds turn to a parent for advice. Many foster children don’t have that option because they were placed in foster care after being abused or neglected, he said.
For those who join the independent living program, Amos serves as a father figure.
“He lets the kids fall,” Barrett said. “But he lets them fall with some comfort because there’s someone there to help them. People make mistakes, but they’ve still got a place to live, they’ve still got food, they’ve still got electricity.”
That’s what protected Barrett. It took him nearly all of those three years to figure out how he would survive on his own.
First, he had to convince himself that he could; he feared that he would turn into his parents no matter what he did.
“I thought, ‘It’s never going to get better, it’s in the genes,’” he said. “But then I thought, ‘I don’t want to be like my father.’”
He decided that he had to try to get a job that paid more than minimum wage, if only because he needed one so that he could pay his bills once he moved out of the independent living apartment. And sure enough just four months before he turned 21, he got a job at the Golub warehouse in Rotterdam, where he drives a pallet jack for $13 an hour.
The salary was a big relief.
“I knew I’d be able to cover my rent,” he said. “Now, I’m looking to buy a house.”
The program’s reputation is growing, and now even more children who are not in foster care beg Amos to let them join up. The program only has funding for foster children, but Amos said he would like to eventually apply for grants that would allow him to enroll any impoverished child.
“For every kid I have in an apartment, there are four to five others who are hanging on him, wanting what he has,” Amos said.
First, he wants to add more apartments so that more of Northeast’s foster children can enroll in the program.
But they can’t just move into an apartment. Many don’t know how much utilities and groceries cost. Some have never prepared a meal.
So they start at Northeast’s group home, where they take a weekly class designed to teach all of that. Among the tasks: They have to get a real job, save half of their money and prepare a budget showing how they would spend that money if they were living on their own.
That has also encouraged them to begin saving early. Saysha Smith, 18, had $3,000 in savings when she moved into her independent living apartment this summer. She saved her paychecks while finishing high school and moved in the day after graduation.
She had to spend some money immediately, buying a bed and other furniture. That’s good preparation for her future: while many teens move out with their childhood bed, foster children must usually leave their bed behind for the next child.
Now that she has her own furniture, he goals for the next three years are simple.
“I’m going to SCCC for social work,” she began. “And I want to get my money stacked up in the bank. I refuse to struggle in life.”
For graduation, she got a bicycle, which she will use to get to Schenectady County Community College this fall.
She’s already thrilled by her summer of independence.
“I can do what I want,” she said. “I could be laying in bed watching a movie and think, ‘I’m hungry,’ and get up and cook a full meal, no matter what time it is.”
Not many 18-year-olds would be enthusiastic about having to cook for themselves. But Smith fought for this.
Child protective services removed her from her home when she was 14. When they tried to reunite her with her moth five months later, Smith dug in her heels.
“I basically kept stressing the fact that it is not good for me to go home. My mother is not going to change,” she said. “Why take me out of a bad situation and then put me back?”
She had to take her case to court, where she won. Instead of preparing for reunification, she was ordered to build toward independence.
She has worked after school ever since, getting jobs through the Schenectady County Job Training Agency. But she wants to become a social worker and return to Northeast as an employee, helping children like herself.
“I can honestly say to them, ‘I’ve been through it,’” she said.
Caseworkers who could tell her that they had overcome abuse and neglect brought her out of a deep depression that left her focused on school but uninterested in food or anything else, she said.
“I didn’t think I would be successful because of what I’d been through,” she explained. “But you see them, and they’re successful. If they can do it, you can.”
Her caseworkers also offer her the support she never had as a child, she said.
“If I need them, I can go to them,” she said. “If you want a future, you have to make a future for yourself. You have to make it happen, but you just need to find somebody to be that support.”
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