Connected Commonwealth: Programs for Kentucky Youth Aging Out

Photo Credit: Foster Youth In Action

In May 2016, Anna Shobe-Wallace, program manager for Louisville Metro Community Services said, “Each year, more than 500 young people between the ages of 18-21 age out of Kentucky’s foster care system.” Many youth ‘aging out’ are disconnected from larger society and face barriers to success such as: low socioeconomic status, low educational achievement, unplanned pregnancy, racial segregation, and mental and physical challenges.

A recent study assessed the plight of disconnected youth who are teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24, and these youths are neither employed, enrolled in or attending school. The study focused on disconnected youth in the following categories: by state, county, congressional district, gender, and by race and ethnicity. Currently, there is approximately 5,527,000 disconnected youth in the United States or 13.8% of young adults.

According to data from the study:

  • Kentucky ranks 36th in youth disconnection rates with 15.2% of youth in this group for a total of 81,850.
  • Cincinnati, OH–KY–IN ranks 44th in youth disconnection among the most densely inhabited areas. The percentage of disconnected youth in this area is 12.8% or 38,312 total. The racial breakdown for this group is 20.6% Black and 11.8% White.
  • Louisville/Jefferson County, KY–IN ranks 56th in youth disconnection. The percentage of disconnected youth in this area is 14.0% with a total of 21,750 disconnected youth. The racial breakdown for this group is 18.5% Black and 13.3% White. This Kentucky county has the lowest percentage of disconnected youth.
  • Kentucky counties with the largest percentage of disconnected youth are as follows: Martin County, Kentucky ranks 2,020th with 47.8% disconnected youth; Union County, Kentucky ranks 2012 with 43.7% disconnected youth; Bracken County, Kentucky ranks 1,998th with 41.4% disconnected youth; Lee County, Kentucky ranks 1,994th with 40.9% disconnected youth; McCreary County, Kentucky ranks 1,992nd with 40.4% disconnected youth; Morgan County, Kentucky ranks 1,985th with 38.7% disconnected youth; and Wolfe County, Kentucky ranks 1,972nd with 37.5% disconnected youth

Researchers from this study concluded that larger urban communities had increased numbers of disconnected youth due to the following indicators: a historical pattern of disconnection, decreased neighborhood well-being rates, low SES, increased unemployment, a lack of academic achievement, and racism.

These alarming statistics clearly indicated systemic issues that impact disconnected youth. Experts from this study proposed that, “Disconnection is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon; it is an outcome year in the making.” With this thought in mind, the study recommended these steps moving forward:

  • An estimated $26.8 billion dollars was involved with supporting the nation’s 5.5 million disconnected youth— comprising Supplemental Security Income payments, Medicaid, public assistance, incarceration, in 2013. Proposing more beneficial ways to invest in this population would be advantageous to society as a whole.
  • Designing preventive measures to address disconnection by sustaining at-risk parents and investing in quality preschool programs. It is usually more cost effective and compassionate to implement prevention strategies than crisis responses.
  • Re-joining youth and young adults who are secluded from higher education and the job market is more expensive than pre-emptive methods that address disconnection at the outset. However, these young people need another opportunity—considering many came from challenging backgrounds.
  • At the community level, an evident positive correlation was seen between adult employment status and youth’s relationship to education and employment. The amount of education adults had greatly projected the likelihood of young people ages 16 to 24 years old to attend school.
  • Significant headway involves individuals and organizations cooperating to institute specific measurable attainable realistic timely (SMART) goals for decreasing youth disconnection.

Amy Swann, author of “Failure to Launch”, notes that for 2013, the study data indicates that the Louisville Metropolitan Area (which consists of bordering counties) has 14.0 percent of youth ages 16-24 disengaged from employment and education. The study’s emphasis on cities resulted in reporting by Louisville news outlets at the Courier-Journal and WFPL. Media exposure of the status of disconnected youth in Kentuckiana has led to remarkable new efforts that focus on this population.

In light of this compelling evidence: social workers, legislators, and other helping professionals in the state of Kentucky have amassed their efforts to cultivate community partnerships and programs to support disconnected youth on their journey into emerging adulthood.

According to their website, here is a description of each program, and how it addresses the needs of disconnected youth and youth ‘aging out’.

Family Scholar House plans to open its fifth Louisville campus at the Riverport Landings development in southwest Jefferson County. The project goal is to equip families and youth to excel in education and to obtain independence. The new facility is expected to be ready by 2017 and will accommodate low-income families, single-parent families, and young adults formerly in foster care.

Fostering Success is a summer employment program developed by Gov. Matt Bevin that began June 1, 2016. The program provides job training via the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services for youth ages 18 to 23 years old. The program will run for 10 weeks and culminate with meetings with college and career counselors to prepare participants for future education and employment goals. Approximately 100 youth will be employed full-time at a rate of $10.00 dollars per hour. Fostering Success is one of the seminal programs in the state to target youth aging out.

Project LIFE serves 60 kids across Kentucky, including 25 in Louisville and offers an empowering environment to prepare them for success. Youth are given a housing voucher, along with social supports to improve access to education, employment, and income management skills.

Coalition Supporting Young Adults (CYSA) is an initiative created to address the barriers faced by Louisville’s disconnected young people. The mission is to develop: a standard agenda that meets the needs of Louisville’s vulnerable youth and young adults; common measurement tools that define collective goals and strategies; mutually supportive activities that create new partnerships and execute thoughtful programs; effective communication that creates a viable structure; foundational support that stimulates growth, responsibility, and dependability.

Transition Age Youth Launching Realized Dreams (TAYLRD) is an effort to create a unique program for young people born out of the federal government’s proposal called “Now is the Time” Healthy Transitions Grant Program. The Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) in Kentucky requested and received funding and Seven Counties was chosen as a venue to open drop-in centers where young people can foster relationships and access support /services to achieve their future goals. Youth Peer Support Specialists (YPSS) and Youth Coordinators work together with clients to define what concerns are most important, and then appropriate services/supports are brought into the drop-in centers. Some of the supports/services offered include: case management, life skills development, employment services, academic support, legal support, and therapy.

True Up founded by foster care alum Frank Harshaw, is a nurturing group of foster care alumni who have overcome obstacles to employment, pursuing education, gaining independence and solidifying healthy relationships. They have chosen to pay it forward through mentorship. True Up empowers foster youth through academic and hands-on learning in the following areas: Mobility & Transportation, Career Mapping, Financial Management, Relationship Building Skills, and Educational Achievement.

These are just a few of the innovative programs and resources available in the state of Kentucky. As helping professionals and the broader community create data driven programs for disconnected youth and youth aging out, expected outcomes will be much more positive in the near future.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

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