Child and Family Services, the city's foster care agency, has released its first-ever report on how to prepare District teenagers for life after they leave foster care, taking a step to address an often overlooked population that makes up more than half of the 2,700 children in city custody.
The 24-page paper, "Revamping Youth Services: Preparing Young People in Foster Care for Independence," describes the myriad challenges that teenagers in foster care face -- from not having reliable adults in their lives to help them apply to college or find a job, to not knowing how to drive because foster care agencies and nonprofit programs do not offer them driver education.
The report, published in July, also outlines a one-year plan to address the problems.
Director Brenda Donald Walker has focused on older youth since she took over the agency in April 2004. She found that some foster teenagers had been in city custody for more than a decade.
"We have kids who have grown up in foster care, and I felt we really needed to refocus our efforts to try and mitigate some of the consequences and circumstances of them being in long-term foster care," said Donald Walker.
To help her do that, she organized an advisory committee of Family Court judges, nonprofit organizations that receive agency money to care for foster teenagers and other groups, which met for several months and discussed solutions. The agency also held seven focus groups with a total of about 80 youths and foster parents to get feedback on how the agency is serving them.
Unless foster children are adopted or reunited with their families, the District must take care of them until they turn 21. About 150 D.C. foster children do so each year. But the agency has only anecdotal information on how those who leave foster care fare because it lacks a formal tracking system.
For years, the agency had such a poor record of helping foster children either return home or find a new family that a court placed it under federal control. The agency is back under city control but remains under a court order to make improvements.
The paper described several positive aspects of the District's foster care, including that children receive weekly allowances and monthly stipends, which gives them real-world practice in budgeting. They also participate in recreational activities, and many successfully enroll in college.
However, the report says that quality is inconsistent among D.C. foster care programs. Few programs work with foster youth on reestablishing healthy ties with their birth families, and no programs offer formal training in computer skills. In addition, according to the paper, many foster teenagers live in group homes, but "group home programs provide little to no independent living preparation."
Nadia Moritz, executive director of the Young Women's Project, which holds workshops on the foster care system for teenagers, was among several people who commented on a draft version of the report. In her written assessment, she said it was unclear whether the intended audience was the public or policymakers.
"If the document is intended to be a guide to develop new programming and fix existing problems, then I think it needs to go more in depth," wrote Moritz, a member of the advisory committee. She said the report, which was not changed substantially in the final version, should address the challenges facing teenagers in group homes and independent living programs, which pay for foster children to live in apartments while the teenagers attend classes on money management and how to run a household.
The report outlines new benchmarks for teenagers in foster care. Among them are that every teenager leaving foster care should have a high school diploma or GED, a mentor, complete medical, dental and health records, and job skills. This month, the agency will hire a new administrator to run its youth programs and refer all foster teenagers on their 20th birthday to nonprofit agencies to help them devise a plan for living on their own.
By March 2006, agency plans include designing a system to track youths after they leave foster care and to develop a handbook that foster youth can refer to after their 21st birthday.