A pilot program recently sponsored through Human Services to help foster children between the ages of 18 to 21 was a big success locally, but might now have to sit on the back burner until the government makes it a funding priority.
Last year, 32 lucky foster family "leavers" took part in the program, which helps smooth the transition for foster children leaving the home once they hit age 18. The program was a hit, but this year’s leavers have no such luck.
Back on island for a recent trip, Mary Ann Weston, who ran the Foster Care Youth Transitional Program (FTYCP), was able to sit down with the Source to discuss the issue. The program was paid for with a $213,000 grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act through the Department of Human Services (DHS), under the umbrella of the Family Resources Center (FRC).
Weston was also invited onto a national committee studying the problems of older foster youth by the National Resources Center. Weston shared her experiences locally with helping to further research on "aging out," the term used to describe the exit from foster care at age 18.
The V.I. program was in line with those of several states, whose groundbreaking programs for the foster leavers are being set up under the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which, in 2008, significantly reformed national foster care policies.
Human Services officials have said that while they are aware of the law, the budget for the foster care program is minimal and comes, with a few exceptions, from what is now a cash-strapped General Fund. There are plans to further these kinds of transitional initiatives, they said, but the department has to get the money it needs.
Along with Vivian St. Juste, executive director of Family Resource Center, Weston supports a national movement and the new legislation to raise “aging out” from 18 to 21.
“The program was a wonderful initiative," St. Juste said in a recent interview. “Without it, they live on somebody’s couch, hang out with peers, which they make into a family, and follow that crowd, as they have no family to follow.”
Weston says that from 18, "it will take at least two years of transitional housing and help if you want them to be successful."
"Fifty years ago, at age 18, young people here could leave foster care and take care of themselves, but now that is almost impossible,” Weston said. She also noted that unsupported foster leavers are more likely to have problems with homelessness, drug abuse, early pregnancies, domestic violence, and mental illness—all a greater burden on the community than transitional support programs.
Weston said the program came in like a fairy godmother setting up solid futures.
“These 32 did so well," Weston said. "All of them got their driver’s licenses, which gave them such a feeling of independence."
The Family Resource Center used its experience and offices to offer the group classes in computer skills, life skills such as cooking, opening a bank account, renting and setting up utilities, and interviewing and applying for work/college.
They also used the federal funds to pay for eyeglasses, sorely needed dental and medical work, job interview clothing, passports and immigration documents.
The center organized a job fair that had representatives from the Job Corps, the National Guard, food stamp and medical assistance, the V.I. Housing Authority, Inland Revenue, and the University of the Virgin Islands, among others.
Several of the participants in last year’s program are now attending college on scholarship, while others are in the military, and majority of the rest are employed.
Local businesswoman Jane Higgins was a foster child herself. When her parents died, she and her five siblings were split up and sent into a series of homes.
In a recent interview with the Source, Higgins recalled the months before her high school graduation.
"When everyone else was thinking of big graduation parties, I knew I would have to move out," she said. "It was like being abandoned all over again. The warning bells sounded … I have to face this again.”
Higgins said that being in a group of other foster leavers would have made a great difference to her.
"We are such a small island, so to be a foster kid where so many of your peers have so many relatives, and where you may even have relatives who cannot take care of you—it creates a different kind of anxiety and isolation," she said.
Meanwhile, Weston and St. Juste dream of continuing the aging-out program—perhaps this time around with a transitional housing center offering workshops and services.
“And they could live in a shared room and save money,” Weston said, “and then transition out into their own home."
"There are many parts left undone," she added. "We still need to have these programs continue."