Francis Jeune is a poster child for all the good that can be done when foster care works right.
Swept into the state system as an angry and rebellious 13-year-old after his mother died and other family members abandoned him, the 19-year-old is now a sophomore at Palm Beach State College with plans to pursue a career in medicine — possibly working as an emergency room doctor or nurse.
“It has to be something fast-paced,” Jeune says with an easy smile.
But behind that smile is the troubling knowledge that Jeune is the exception; not the rule.
Three friends he grew up with in a Boca Raton group home are dead. One is in prison. Another is homeless.
That’s why he is spreading the word about a program that will allow young adults to return to foster care until they are 21. No longer will teens be kicked out when they turn 18.
“If you go back into foster care, you would get your support system back,” Jeune says he tells peers who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads. “You could work your way back to where you want to be.”
Those who have pushed state lawmakers to embrace a kinder, gentler and smarter way of dealing with 18-year-olds who too often graduate from foster care to the streets, say ideally Jeune’s rosy outlook will become reality when the expanded Independent Living Program is launched on Jan. 1.
Scrambling to meet the rapidly-approaching deadline, however, child care advocates say they are running into a plethora of unexpected roadblocks, not the least of which is lack of funding.
Nothing to support kids
When Florida lawmakers in the spring passed the law creating the program, they didn’t allocate any additional money to provide housing and other services to thousands of former foster children ages 18-21 who will become eligible for state aid. While federal funds are available for the expanded program, because of other gaps in the system, Florida isn’t eligible for it.
“At its core, it’s a wonderful thing because it rights … an incredible wrong,” said Larry Rein, executive director of ChildNet Palm Beach County, which administers the state’s foster program here. “But it’s incredible that there’s no resources to support these children.”
To make the funding dilemma more complicated, no one knows how many former foster children are out there and how many will ultimately opt back in.
Stephen Pennypacker, assistant secretary for programs at the Florida Department of Children & Families, says cost-savings have been built into the $29 million program that will free up other money in the foster-care system to pay for the additional services. Others say the program is so vital that they just want it launched, and the kinks can be worked out later.
They point to 2012 survey of 18- to 22-year-old former Florida foster children that found only 57 percent had high school diplomas, a mere 19 percent reported having either full or part-time jobs and 40 percent said they had been arrested in the previous 12 months. A separate study by the Children’s Home Society found that 60 percent will have a child four years after “aging out” of foster care and 33 percent will be homeless within three years.
The grim statistics show how desperately help is needed to try to put the young people, who the state raised, on the right track, advocates said.
Further, others insist, changes are needed to plug well-meaning, but money-wasting holes in the system.
Jane Soltis, who spent six years as chair of the state’s Independent Living Services Advisory Council, said under the current system when foster kids turn 18 they can receive monthly checks for up to about $1,200 for living expenses as long as they are pursuing an education — even though most are still in high school. Not surprisingly, most don’t spend it very well.
Giving checks to kids
“To put a kid in high school out there with a $1,200 check; you wouldn’t do that with your own kid,” she said. “We were giving all these checks out to thousands of kids. We were spending all this money, and it wasn’t doing any good.”
The new law creates standards and oversight and beefs up existing programs to teach foster kids basic life skills, including money management. Instead of sending the money to the former foster child, the money would be sent to the young adults’ foster parents or agencies, such as ChildNet.
According to the law, any 18-year-old who chooses to remain in foster care or one who agrees to come back into the system, would immediately be eligible for housing if they are working at least 80 hours a month or are in school — which includes high school, college or vocational programs. Those who have physical or mental limitations would be exempt from that requirement.
Like Jeune, former foster kids who have completed high school and are enrolled in college, would continue to receive as much as $1,256 monthly to cover room, board and other living expenses. Housing for those still in high school or working would be paid for and they would also receive a monthly stipend although the amount has not been set, DCF’s Pennypacker said. Proposed rules are to be released Tuesday.
Where to put returning kids?
One of the main problems is finding housing for the former foster children. In Palm Beach County, there aren’t enough foster homes for those under age 18, said Rein of ChildNet. In the past year, his agency has increased the number of foster homes and beds by more than 25 percent, but there still is a huge gap. In October, there were 1,054 kids who had been removed from their parents and only 424 beds, he said. The remainder are sent to homes out of the county or placed with relatives, other families or in group homes.
Rein questioned where the additional beds would come from to accommodate those over 18. He said he has no idea how many will ultimately return. But, he said, with 94 Palm Beach County youth turning 18 in the next seven months and another 142 already receiving assistance, he knows the number will be sizable.
Group homes, in most cases, aren’t an option, he said. A typical home charges about $115 a day or $3,450 a month — more than twice the $1,256 teens are to be eligible for each month.
Pennypacker said there are ways to increase housing options. “If people are considering becoming a foster parent, then this is a good time,” he said.
Further, he said, those who opt to remain in the program don’t have to live in foster homes. As adults, they could pool their resources and share apartments that would have to be approved by state officials. Those in college could live in dorms.
Shahar Pasch, an attorney with the Juvenile Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said she is still waiting for answers about what will happen to those with developmental disabilities, mental illness or young women with children. While people may want to pretend that all former foster children are as well-adjusted as Jeune, the reality is that many are not.
“If you’re aging out of foster care, you probably have issues,” she said.
Christina Spudeas, who as executive director of Florida’s Children First pushed for the measure, said it’s time to get creative. People need to think of new ways to provide housing. Perhaps other family members would be willing to take in a young adult. Empty-nesters may have an extra bedroom available. Or, she said, perhaps private businesses will respond by coming up with new types of affordable housing.
“Everyone needs to think outside the box,” she said. Even some of the relatively minor changes are critically important.
Currently, for instance, a foster child over age 18 has to be enrolled in school full-time to get any assistance beyond emergency aid. “That’s hard to do when you’re homeless,” she said. Further, if they drop out twice, they’re done. There’s no going back.
The new program allows them to fail repeatedly and then come back in. And now people, including juvenile court judges and caseworkers, will be watching to help them succeed.
She readily admits there are numerous details to work out. And, she said, it would be nice if more money were available.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that we have to understand that there’s a lot of mistakes that are going to be made, and that they’re all not going to be corrected in a couple of months,” Spudeas said. “It’s going to take years.”