Note: This is the last in a four-part series of articles. The first, second and third stories, “Finding family,” “Sharing support,” and “Preparation and prevention,” appeared on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday respectively.
ST. ALBANS — At first glance, Sabrina Allen’s past would indicate a difficult future ahead. Fortunately for Allen and other youth aging out of foster care, things are not always as they seem.
The 17-year-old went through five foster homes in two years before landing with her current family in Swanton for the past couple of years.
“I was originally put in foster care because I kept getting into trouble,” Allen said in a recent interview, “
Growing up in a home where both parents were experiencing one or more forms of mental illness, Allen described herself as rebellious and in frequent fights with her mother. She was suspended from school for the first time in fifth grade.
“And I got in as much trouble as I could ever since,” she said.
Allen was taken into custody by the Vermont Department for Children and Families at age 13 and was put on a 24-hour curfew and probation, which she violated a time or two.
“At first, I really did not like it,” Allen said. “I didn’t understand what they were doing.”
It took a two-month-long stay in a strict environment at House at 20 Mile Stream in Proctorsville, services offered through Spectrum Youth and Family Services in St. Albans, a dedicated DCF caseworker, and the switch from Missisquoi Valley Union high school to the Vermont Adult Learning center for Allen’s life to change.
“This is the first year I’ve ever done homework,” Allen said.
It also took the right foster family. “Now,” she said, “I have a family to go home to.”
Allen described herself as being in a good place. She’s in a loving, stable home, she graduated from high school and has college plans, she’s still in touch with her biological parents, and she has aspirations to someday be a social worker.
The shift in attitude, Allen said, happened about a year ago when she figured out that instead of resisting and rebelling towards everyone around her, she could do the right things she was supposed to, and good things could happen.
“[I came] to realize they were trying to help me,” Allen said. “And they have helped me.”
Easing the transition
At age 18, any youth in DCF custody ages out of the system and out of foster care. According to the St. Albans DCF district office, last year 16 percent of the 96 children and youth exiting DCF care in the St. Albans district left to live independently.
While that transition can be harsh and sudden for some, the Spectrum Youth and Family Services organization does what it can through its Youth Development Program (YDP) to smooth the transition to adulthood, even past the age of 18.
Youth ages 15 to 22 who have been in or are still in foster care are eligible to receive YDP help with housing, employment, higher education, life skills, physical and mental health – the core components of adult life, essentially. DCF will make referrals to the program for youth who are interested, and the YDP will work with those youth to create and achieve short- and long-term goals.
Cassie Redfield, one of YDP’s development coordinators, said that a lot of local foster youth take advantage of the program. “It’s amazing the number of youth that work with us,” she said.
This is probably because youth find out quickly that without help, moving into adulthood is a challenge for most people with a history of foster care, or not.
“This age is difficult for everyone,” said Redfield. “We do our best to eliminate barriers.”
One of the YDP’s main focuses is attaining higher education for teens coming out of foster care. Scholarships and state funding support youth looking to apply to and attend college, and YDP aids with the process.
According to Redfield, a lot more youth coming out of foster care are going to college, especially to out-of-state institutions. Out of the 67 enrolled in YDP in 2013, 15 were over 18 and had earned their high school diploma or GED. Out of those college-eligible youth, 67 percent were enrolled in post-secondary education or training programs last year. Those numbers have continued rising this year.
Redfield said YDP also aims to make youth coming out of foster care aware of the resources they’ll have as adults. These include services they can rely on once out of DCF custody, natural relationships with family, friends and social workers, and community connections.
Margi Cameron, the St. Albans district DCF resource coordinator, said that those resources and relationships are overwhelmingly helpful to those just coming out of DCF care, creating both resiliency and success.
“Whether it’s a foster parent or another adult or a social worker they’re particularly connected to,” Cameron said, “[it] helps move them in a positive direction.”
For those youth working with the YDP to go to college, the future looks bright. Allen, for instance, already has funding for a laptop and books. She plans to attend classes at Community College of Vermont next year and has already begun on some of them, and this fall she’ll apply to go to an out-of-state school.
“I definitely want to go to a warm state,” Allen said.
Allen also has received counseling, budgeting classes, and employment at Price Chopper through the YDP, and has a stable family that she’ll always be able to go back to thanks to the right placement made by DCF.
“It’s nice to be in a home where, like, my mom will do stuff for me because she cares,” said Allen. “I’m really happy I found that. It’s definitely helped to have a support system.”
In addition, Allen is still in touch with her biological parents. She described having a good relationship with her father, who met her foster family for the first time at the recent VAL graduation. Allen is also still talking with her mother; despite the difficulties the two still have getting along.
“She is my mom,” Allen said. “I love my mom.”
Not all youth exiting foster care have stories like Allen’s, and according to national data collected through Casey Family Program, the futures of many exiting foster care leave a lot to be desired.
In 2010, 74 percent of foster care alumni had completed high school, but only 3-11 percent completed their college bachelor’s degree, even though 70 percent of those foster youth planned to attend college. About 52 percent of foster care alumni were employed in 2010, and 22 percent became homeless for a day or more. In addition, 25 percent of foster care alumni experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
The St. Albans DCF district office could not provide similar statistics for foster care alumni in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, and according to DCF’s reports, that data is still being collected on a statewide basis. There is, however, evidence of similar issues being present locally.
Tim’s House, the homeless shelter in St. Albans, for instance, has two current residents who were formerly in foster care. According to executive director Linda Ryan, about 20 people who have gone through the shelter the past year had been in foster care at one point in time.
Having a chance
Though not all youth coming out of the St. Albans district of DCF have positive experience, Allen said that in her case, DCF, YDP, finishing high school at the Vermont Adult Learning center, and her foster parents all contributed to ensuring her future.
“They have good intentions,” she said. “All cases are different, but definitely in my case, they did a good job.”
While acknowledging the aid she received, Allen also made the point that, to succeed after coming out of a situation like hers, she had to want and accept help from those who were offering it. Now, she said, she has a vision for what she wants in life, and a plan for how to get there.
“You have to let them help you for it to work out,” she said. “They give you the chance.”