During the 2013 General Assembly session, Voices is leading an effort to provide critical re-entry services to former foster youth who enter the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), but turn 18 years old before finishing their commitment term—currently making them ineligible for the Independent Living (IL) services available to all foster youth who “age out” of care at age 18.
When youth “age out” of foster care at age 18, the Department of Social Services recognizes that additional life skills, employment support and educational guidance can be necessary to fill in some of the gaps they may have suffered from experiencing family disruption and living in out-of-home placements. Independent Living (IL) services can offer older youth the mentoring, support and skills to help them make a successful transition to adulthood.
IL services, available once youth leave foster care at age 18, can include counseling, positive decision-making and anger management programs, educational mentoring, help finding employment and housing, help seeking substance abuse treatment and basic life skills training like managing household finances—skills and supports these youth might have received from family had they not experienced the trauma or crises that brought them into foster care, or had DSS found a permanent family placement for them.
It’s important to note, too, that youth must make their own contributions in order to receive these services: they must commit to either full-time schooling, full-time employment or some combination of the two (as well as any other terms their caseworker sets in the IL agreement).
But right now, youth in foster care who enter DJJ and turn 18 before completing their commitment term do not have access to these critical supports. These youth lose eligibility for IL services simply by virtue of being in DJJ custody when they turn 18 years old. Had their DJJ commitment period ended at any point before their 18th birthday, they would have been released back into the foster care system and become eligible for IL supports.
These youth, often called “Crossover Youth” because of their contact with two systems, are youth most vulnerable to devastating and costly outcomes such as homelessness, unemployment, recidivism (with more serious charges), teen pregnancy and school dropout. We send them from foster care into the Department of Juvenile Justice without family connections, and yet expect them to become successful on their own upon re-entry at ages 18-21. These youth have made mistakes, but they have also suffered the consequences and completed their sentences. We should not make them continue to pay for those mistakes by setting them up for failure once they are ready to re-enter their communities.
The bills from Senator Favola and Delegates Brink and Peace recognize that these youth in particular have especially critical and unique needs based on the risk factors they accrue from their involvement in multiple systems. While not brushing aside the impact of the offenses these youth may have committed, here is what we do know about the youth who could benefit from these services:
• Many were in multiple foster placements before entering juvenile justice custody (including group homes);
• A significant number of these youth experienced sexual assault before entering juvenile justice custody; and
• Even more experienced physical assault/abuse before their juvenile justice commitment.
Communities will only benefit from these youth making a productive transition back to society: we all gain when they succeed, but if we don’t recognize their re-entry needs (and that they can’t do it alone), we will all bear the consequences.
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