Sparrows in a Hurricane 

A local program tries to change the fact that isolation, homelessness often face foster kids turning 18

A local program tries to change the fact that isolation, homelessness often face foster kids turning 18

The movie Antwone Fisher tells the story of a young boy determined to succeed even as he faces physical and sexual abuse from a foster family who finally throw him out when he’s a teenager. He ends up in a homeless shelter, stays with friends, gets in trouble with the law, eventually finding a home in the Navy.

“That movie is so real. That tells more truth than you’ll find in any child’s file,” Erika Lamb, a pretty 21-year-old single mother, says of the story written by a former foster child and based on his own life. Lamb believes it would have been easy for her to end up homeless or addicted to drugs after she turned 18 while in state care at the Tennessee Preparatory School. “I had nowhere to go,” she says.

Lamb entered foster care at age 11 after her parents separated and family problems with an older brother—three of her brothers are in prison now—led to public fights and police intervention. Lamb recalls being slapped by one of her foster mothers and raped at age 14 by a friend’s foster father, who she says got her and the friend so drunk they passed out. She woke up with the man on top of her.

Told she had to leave the school at 18, Lamb signed papers to stay in state care so she could continue getting assistance while she tried college. Even then, she says it took a determined social worker to actually get her into a program that provided rent assistance and other transitional help.

A rocky road was still ahead of her. She dropped out of college and technical school (twice), eventually completing a cosmetology program and lining up a job in a salon where she’ll work as a receptionist until she passes her state board exams to cut and style hair. And she’s seeking child support from her son’s father.

“College isn’t for everyone,” Lamb says. Though nervous about being on her own completely, Lamb is determined to make her life work. “I just feel like I can manage,” says Lamb, who at the moment is letting her father stay with her because he has nowhere else to go.

Despite, or because of, her own struggles, one of Lamb’s passions is helping the more than 10,000 children and teenagers in Tennessee’s foster care system. That’s why she agreed to serve on the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council for a pilot project meant to give the more than 500 young adults who age out of foster care in Tennessee each year someplace to turn.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative is part of a three-year, $18 million program to help the 100,000 people in the United States who are about to leave or have already left the foster care system. Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs—national programs that try to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families—the project in Nashville is under the auspices of the Vanderbilt Child and Family Policy Center. One of five projects in Tennessee, Michigan, Georgia, Missouri and Kansas, Nashville has moved the fastest and has 12 participants already attending classes to learn how to manage money. The goal is to have 75 young adults enrolled by December 2003 and 225 by the third year of the project.

The problem of what happens to teenagers in foster care began to be addressed after Congress passed a 1999 federal law providing funding for states to assist those who are aging out of foster care, says Shawn Huff, the Southern regional director for the Jim Casey initiative. That resulted in programs like the one Lamb is in.

But this one is different because former foster children are helping design it, says Debbie Miller, director of the Vanderbilt policy center.

“A lot of these kids will be on the streets. They have lost touch with family members, and they have few resources to find housing and jobs. They don’t have the money to get an apartment. Girls are sometimes forced into prostitution just to have food and a place to stay, or they go live with a boyfriend until he kicks them out, and then they are back on the streets,” Miller says. “If they get a job, they frequently don’t know that they need to call in when they are sick or when they don’t have transportation.”

All the skills and networking available to children who live with their parents are missing for foster kids, Miller says. “How many of us got our first job from someone our parents knew?”

While teens can stay in state care until they’re 23 as long as they’re in school, Miller agrees with Lamb that college isn’t for everyone. And Lamb adds that many kids in foster care feel like they’re about to get out of prison and don’t worry about how they will support themselves once the gates clang shut behind them.

Studies have shown that the odds are against them. One-fourth of teenagers who left foster care have been homeless, nearly half don’t have a high school diploma, and 42 percent are parents themselves. Fewer than one in five support themselves.

Kim Crane, director of the Nashville site of the Jim Casey program, says the program’s Opportunity Passport attempts to create networks for youths leaving foster care while putting much-needed cash directly into their pockets and helping them build financial assets. Kids 14 to 23 who are now in or were in foster care can enroll in the program. Right now, the 12 enrollees are all members of the youth advisory council that’s helping to structure the program.

The first step includes four two-hour financial management classes, which teach the youth about regular banking services. That might seem a no-brainer, but Crane says many foster kids have considered high-priced check-cashing services as the normal way to do business.

Once they complete the classes, they get $100 in an Individual Development Account set up at US Bank, which has agreed to provide the IDA accounts and debit accounts free, as well as teach financial classes. Besides seeding the account with $100, the Jim Casey program will match up to $1,000 a year saved by a program member. Those savings can be used for specific purposes, such as buying a car or paying tuition for classes.

The next piece of the program is called Door Openers, which takes a stab at providing the networking most teens get from family—mentoring, job shadowing, discounts at local stores, waived apartment deposits, whatever a community board and the youth advisory council can arrange to open the door to independent living.

Members of the youth advisory council, all former or current foster children, have faced hardship themselves and credit a decent foster parent, a good social worker or an outstanding teacher with helping them avoid the dismal fates of many foster kids.

Tennessee’s foster care system, with 9,700 kids in its care, is now under federal court monitoring after the settlement of a class action lawsuit required sweeping changes that ranged from limiting the number of times children could be moved into emergency placement to increasing the number of caseworkers to keep better tabs on children in state custody.

Stacy Schumaker, who was both physically and sexually abused while in foster care from age 3 to 18, cites her own experience as proof that foster children can turn out fine.

“I was fortunate that I did have a supportive foster family when I was 10,” Schumaker says. In fact, the Belmont University student loves these particular foster parents so much that she turned down an opportunity to be adopted when she was a teenager because she wanted to stay in what she had come to consider her home.

But her foster sister says Schumaker had to fight hard to overcome the stigma of being a foster kid. “She had to study and fight to get out of special ed classes,” Nicki Clark recalls. “When a school system finds out that a child is a foster child and they start to act up in class, they start hollering about medication.”

Schumaker says that when she was in bad foster homes, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and a host of other problems that she now believes she never had.

“I remember wanting someone to love me so much. I would have done anything to make people proud of me,” she says. Still, her foster family was unable to help her older brother, who they took in when he was 15. Schumaker says he kept getting in trouble and is now in jail.

If they don’t find a family to love them, some craft one.

Sidney Bynum, 20, has made a home for her brothers since she left foster care. Bynum has worked since age 15 and says she has always saved money. She works as a nursing assistant, is going to school to become a certified nurse technician and hopes to eventually go to medical school. She got a HUD loan to buy a house. Two of her brothers and their girlfriends and children live with her.

“We want to stay together,” Bynum says, explaining that the siblings were adopted by the same foster mother, who then died when Bynum was 11, forcing them to go back into the foster care system.

The youth council’s determination was evident from the beginning. They collected thousands of suitcases for children in foster care so the kids wouldn’t have to carry their belongings in garbage bags when forced to move from place to place.

Shawn Huff, of the Jim Casey initiative, says that might seem like a small gesture, but it isn’t. “It allows them to walk with dignity,” he says.

Crane says the members of the youth advisory board have blossomed as they’ve worked to design a program that they think will help others safely leave foster care. “I think it says that if we really, truly engage these young people, that we’re going to make real changes.”

Besides the suitcase drive, the youth advisory council has also already expanded the program to look at recruiting better foster parents. “That wasn’t part of the pilot, but they really want to do it,” Crane says.

Youth council members clearly have high hopes that they can change the way the world sees foster children and correct the impression that they are all troublemakers, felons or orphans.

Says Antonio Begley, 19, “I think we’re going to change a whole lot of things about foster care.”

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