Aging out at 18

Coming of Age

DSS looks at youths’ needs beyond age 18

THE HUMAN CONDITION
By Paula J. Owen correspondent, Worcester Telegram and Gazette

The magic age of 18 that supposedly transforms youths into adults is a fairy tale of long ago, according to youth experts, and children fare far better when they have supports in place to slowly make the transition.

Young people who have been in the state foster and congregate care system are especially vulnerable as they “age out” of supervision by the state Department of Social Services, according to a recently released report. The report, “Preparing Our Kids for Education, Work and Life,” was written by Della M. Hughes, director of the Massachusetts Task Force on Youth Aging Out of DSS Care, a multi-agency effort established in 2002, and a team of specialists in the field.

The report, which is being released during a series of forums around the state, presents the circumstances of youths who age out of state care as well as a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve their situation.

Bryon S. Hefner, 21, is living in an apartment in Somerville with two roommates. Mr. Hefner lived in more than a dozen homes after entering state care through DSS at age 10, including the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps in Lancaster. He has his fondest childhood memories of that school for boys, he said, from age 11 to 14.

“It was the best experiences I ever had,” he said. “It was a supportive environment. I grew up there and learned what it was like to be loved, respected, and have people care for me.”

Before that, however, Mr. Hefner’s childhood was filled with abuse and disappointments.

The first 10 years of his life were spent in unstable, abusive conditions with his biological mother and half-sister, he said. They were homeless and bounced back and forth between his grandmother and uncle’s houses. His father and stepfather were in and out of their lives, and his mother abused drugs and alcohol, and physically and emotionally abused him. At 10 years old, he was sent to an emergency foster home, he said.

“They decided they didn’t want me anymore,” Mr. Hefner said. “They were given a choice and they said, ‘Take him.’ ”

His first foster home did not work out, he said, because they tried to assimilate him into a family setting that was unfamiliar to him.

“I did not adjust well at all,” Mr. Hefner explained. “I had my own mother, and no matter what I did, she told me I was always wrong. She didn’t care about me, and only knew how to neglect me and beat me, so I pushed away my foster mother. I did not know how to have a mother.”

He was then sent to a psychiatric hospital for two months for evaluation before being sent to the RFK Lancaster campus. He was watched round-the-clock and educated there and excelled to the highest level of the program. At 14, he was told he had to leave.

“I fought tooth and nail to stay, but it was time for me to move on,” he said. “I didn’t need that level of supervision anymore.”

He was then sent to a group home in Taunton, where he was once again abused, he said. After a series of foster and group homes, running away and staying with his biological family again, Mr. Hefner ended up in a juvenile detention center and then another group home.

“It was horrible,” he said. “I hated it, and it wasn’t what I needed, and I couldn’t go to public school. There was no emotional or intellectual stimulation. I didn’t have teachers, and I was given an Algebra II book and taught myself.”

At the end of his junior year, he was about to turn 18. He said he told DSS he was going to sign out of care when he turned 18, if he did not go to public school. With the help of his educational advocate, he enrolled in the public school system.

“I would have dropped out and done nothing with my life. I would have been another statistic.”

At 18, Mr. Hefner said, he was not ready to be out on his own. He wrote two letters to independent living programs in the Boston area, he said, and was accepted by both the day he interviewed. He chose the Community Living Program in Norwood, operating under The Home for Little Wanderers, and attended Norwood High School.

“DSS said I was ready to go into an apartment, but I did not feel ready,” he said. “The program was a better, more supportive environment.”

He stayed in the program for his senior year and into the summer while working full time. He said he “blossomed there” and, after graduation, was accepted to four colleges with scholarships. After his first year in college, he completed a summer internship at the Statehouse and will return to college in the fall.

Mr. Hefner said he receives a stipend every two weeks from the state to put toward rent, food and utilities, and he receives tuition refunds.

“I couldn’t survive financially just on my J. Crew salary,” he said. “The state did not give up on me, which is nice. I think I would have struggled finding work, finishing school and going to college without the support I received from the state after I turned 18.”

He recalls one morning last summer while waiting at the bus stop, seeing a girl who also lived in a group home where he lived. She was wearing raggedy clothes and was walking toward a shelter, he said.

“I knew she had signed herself out (of DSS) at 18,” he said. “She was homeless, pregnant, had no health insurance and no place to live and relied on handouts from the shelter. That was her life and her reality. If the services weren’t there, that could have been me. It is just sad that the majority of youths who age out, that is their reality. That is all they have to look forward to.”

Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of The Home for Little Wanderers in Boston, said 600 to 700 youths a year age out of state care.

Changes in state law in 2005 allow these young adults over the age of 18 to return to DSS for voluntary services up through the age of 22, she said. Last year, more than 10,000 children were in DSS placements in the state and more than half were age 12 or older.

The Massachusetts Task Force on Youth Aging Out of DSS Care interviewed almost 100 youths who were most likely to experience risky behaviors after aging out of the system who lacked necessary supports and adult relationships.

“The general sense is that 18 years old is premature and very young for people to be on their own,” she said. “The days where kids go off and get married and get a job at 18 are over. Young people at 18 today that lack education beyond high school and job training skills, without the support of adults, are really too young to make it on their own in the 21st century.”

She said society expects that 18-year-olds can be on their own.

“The public school year is designed for when we were farmers,” she said. “It is an anachronism for what we need to be prepared for today.”

The study, she said, reinforced the idea that young adults who stayed in state care beyond their 18th birthday and relied on services did better. Many who did go out on their own at age 18 decided to sign back into DSS care, she said.

“The level of readiness was explored and kids that have supports do better,” she said. “Home providers and the state are looking to prepare them for education, work and life and the special skills they need to move out on their own.”

The study looked at what the school system, DSS and the government can do to ensure greater success for youths who age out of state care, she said. It is the first time, she said, that all groups that have a stake in the issue came together.

Tamika E. Youmans, 22, of Worcester, who aged out of state care, is living in an apartment with her adopted sister, Kyrah Wilder, 25. The Wilder family, including parents and siblings, brought Tamika into the fold.

Her experience was similar to Mr. Hefner’s. Ms. Youmans bounced from foster home to foster home in Fitchburg, Lancaster and Worcester, ran away, and was in and out of group homes. She said she switched high schools at least 13 times.

Her mother died when she was 5. She entered the DSS system at age 13 because of abuse by her biological father, she said, and she endured abuse while in state care. Now enrolled in college, she is active in her church and has ties with family. She said she relied on state services through DSS until she was no longer eligible — after turning 22 on March 31.

“My family and social workers have been a huge support,” she said. “Anything I needed, whether for school or an apartment or even if I am having a bad day, I know I can call them up and they will be there.”

She said the vouchers and tuition refunds were a big help.

“It made a huge difference after turning 18,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it financially or emotionally if it wasn’t for DSS or my family. I would be on the streets.”

According to the report kids that age out of state care often fall prey to homelessness, incarceration, sexual abuse, unemployment and severe depression.

“These young people experience trauma early on in their lives and are often re-traumatized when they leave the state’s care and attempt to live on their own,” said Ms. Wallace-Benjamin, who is also co-chairwoman on the task force. “The task force was created to engage public, private and nonprofit representatives to ensure youth aging out have the services and supports they need to succeed.”

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