IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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GRAPHIC:  ResearchInvestigations
Fostering a new system
Mark Courtney wants foster teens to have a fairer shot at adulthood.

Every year an estimated 30,000 foster children turn 18, age out of government-run programs, and are expected to transition smoothly into adulthood on their own. Within the first year more than one-third are in jail, homeless, or the victims of physical or sexual assault.

That’s according to Chapin Hall Center for Children director Mark Courtney, who tracked 141 foster youth who “graduated from” the Wisconsin system in 1995 and 1996. Courtney, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration, wasn’t surprised by the bleak findings. “The idea that we stop providing a home at age 18 is shortsighted,” he says. “Parents don’t kick kids out at 18 these days. Why would we expect foster youth to be more likely to make it at 18?”

PHOTO:  Chapin Hall Center for Children director Mark Courtney stands before a turn-of-the-century photo of orphans cared for in one of the center’s earliest incarnations.
Photo by Dan Dry
Chapin Hall Center for Children director Mark Courtney stands before a turn-of-the-century photo of orphans cared for in one of the center’s earliest incarnations.

The study has been posted online since 1998 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (where Courtney taught before joining Chicago in 1999) and was published in the November/December 2001 Child Welfare Journal. The most comprehensive of its kind and considered the seminal work on the topic, Courtney’s research spurred the state to rejigger its foster system, creating a committee in 1999 whose recommendations are now being carried out. It also led to 1999 federal legislation allowing states to provide more housing dollars and extend Medicaid to foster kids through age 21. But Wisconsin’s previous system is typical for the United States, Courtney says, and the legislation is full of loopholes and affects only those states choosing to claim funding. So Courtney has widened his scope to provide a more national picture, now tracking 800 youths in three states—Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin—at ages 17, 19, and 21. Finishing the first wave of interviews in fall 2002, he sees few anecdotal differences in these adolescents (statistical results are forthcoming). Although Illinois allows those in school to stay in foster care through age 21 and has more children living with relatives, he says, “the kids in Milwaukee look a lot like the kids in Chicago.” That is, many are not doing well.

The Wisconsin subjects from his first study—57 percent female, 65 percent Caucasian, 27 percent African American—had been in foster care for an average five-plus years. During the first round of interviews, when they still lived in foster settings (either families or group homes), many reported neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse by their birth families. Forty percent said a primary caregiver abused drugs or alcohol, 14 percent said a caregiver had a mental illness, 18 percent said a caregiver had engaged in domestic violence, and 10 percent said a caregiver had spent time in prison. While in foster care many kept in touch with their birth families, though 41 percent said they wished they had been adopted.

When they reached adulthood, their first year out of the system was the most difficult, Courtney says. Before leaving three-quarters believed they had been trained—mostly by their foster parents or specialized programs—in independent living, including money management, food preparation, health care, finding housing, transportation, and employment, legal skills, interpersonal skills, community resources, and parenting. After a year or more on their own, however, less than 20 percent said they had received assistance with life skills like obtaining a job, housing, personal-health records, health insurance, and public assistance.

By those second interviews a year to a year-and-a-half later, 8 percent of the males and 19 percent of the females were themselves parents. One-third said having enough money was a problem most or all of the time, and 44 percent said the same about obtaining medical care. More than one-third had not yet received a diploma or GED. And though almost half received mental-health services such as counseling while in foster care, only 21 percent were receiving similar care on their own.

Perhaps even more troubling, some of the Wisconsin young adults had graduated from juvenile delinquency to serious run-ins with the law. Although not exactly saints while in foster care, with an average of four crimes per person, a year or more out of the system 18 percent—27 percent of the males and 10 percent of the females—had been arrested and jailed.

Many also had a difficult time supporting themselves: 12 percent reported being homeless at least once since leaving foster care, and 22 percent had lived in four or more places. Although 81 percent had held at least one job, only 61 percent were employed by the second interview, on average receiving less than minimum wage. Almost one-third, meanwhile, received public assistance.

Also during that first year, 25 percent of the males and 15 percent of the females said they had experienced some form of physical victimization, including being “beat up,” “choked, strangled, or smothered,” “attacked with a weapon,” or “tied up, held down, or blindfolded.” Thirteen percent of the females (none of the males) reported being sexually assaulted or raped.

As the evidence shows, foster children need more help transitioning to independent life. With a new federal grant, this spring Courtney will begin researching at least six programs throughout the country, some private and some government-run, aimed at helping foster youth learn to live in the adult world. “We’re actually going to test the programs,” he says, to try to find a model other states should follow. “We spend $170 million nationally a year on independent-living services, and we don’t even know if they’re helping.”

Courtney, who began his career in psychology, switched to social work after counseling abused teens in a California group home in 1984–89. “They were good kids, but they needed help,” recalls the 45-year-old with a gray muss of hair. “The systems we set up as a society were woefully inadequate.”

He hopes to find a way to address foster kids’ poor education levels (“better interaction between schools and child-welfare programs”), housing problems (“the key is to have a range of housing options that move from heavily supervised to very independent”), and lack of life skills (“go grocery shopping, introduce them to community college”).

They also need a place to return if independent living doesn’t work out. “Just like in college,” he says, “you live in a dorm and in the summer you go home”—an experience that seems a world away from these teens.

— Amy Braverman

Corrected 2/28




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