Foster care and homelessness: The reality of Lawell “Elf” Brooks

Added to that, according to a 2009 report by the Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland, due to unstable living conditions and poor connections to family, “Between 15–22% of youth [experience] homelessness within 1 year of aging-out of the foster care system.” In one Midwest sample, “a staggering 53% of foster youth were characterized as either homeless or unstably housed within 18 months of emancipating from foster care.”


Meet Lawell Brooks. Called “Elf” by her street friends due to her miniature size, she came into the Alabama Department of Human Resources’ (DHR) custody at the age of 14, she says, because of a traumatic experience of abuse she prefers to keep private. She ran away from her grandparents to live with her mom, “hoping she’d change.”


But  Lawell was put back into the foster care system. When she was 17, she was placed in a Montgomery group home even though, she says, “I was not supposed to be in [Montgomery], where all the bad stuff happened to me.”


So she ran away and dropped out of school, something 37 percent of foster youth aged 17-20 do according to Mark Courtney, executive director of Seattle’s Partners for Our Children, and Ballmer Chair for Child Well-Being in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. Says one report from the National Partnership to End Youth Homelessness: “Sixty-five percent (of foster children) experienced seven or more school changes between elementary and high school age,” making it hard to keep up with class curriculums. Adds the report, “As a result, foster youth are often disconnected from family and natural social networks.”


Which means that they’re more likely to age out of foster care alone. Without familial supports, many former foster youth find it difficult to establish themselves and live independently after leaving state care. Hence, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 and the subsequent Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program, which increases assistance for youth transitioning out of foster care and increases state accountability for transitioning youth. Interpretations of the Chaffee program differ from state to state, and even county to county, with some areas offering assistance through 21 and others 23. Sometimes assistance comes in the form of independent living assistance and counseling, other times free or reduced tuition for college, Medicaid, and other services depending on a client’s needs.


Florida’s Independent Living Program offers services to youth and young adults aging out of foster care such as “parenting classes, career counseling, therapy and psychological counseling and assistance with time management and organization,” as well as financial and educational support, such as the Road to Independence (RTI) scholarship, which helps transitioning foster youth go to college. That being said, DCF services stop at 21.


And many kids aging out of foster care, like Elf, may be difficult to keep in touch with. “We do a survey of independent living kids in Florida,” says Alan Abramowitz, director of family safety for DCF, “and when it comes to housing, we ask the questions of all kids who have aged out of foster care. But of course, we can only be accountable to the kids who respond.”


In other words: if you can’t reach them, you can’t help them.


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DHHS’s Administration for Children and Families says tracking former foster youth may be difficult due to the fact that many “may experience frequent changes in their residence and employment, or they may leave the community to enroll in higher education or the military,” adding, “Youth may become homeless or incarcerated or they may not be interested in maintaining contact with the child welfare agency.”


When Elf ran away from her Alabama group home, she moved down to St. Pete Beach to live with her mother. She was over the age of 18, and no longer in touch with Alabama DHR. But when she got to St. Pete Beach, she found the living situation untenable. So she hooked up with a guy 18 years her senior in an attempt to get away.


When her grandfather died, she and her boyfriend went up to Alabama to help her family pack his belongings. Afterward, they moved into a trailer in Slocomb, a lower-Alabama city. They were supposed to get married, she says. Then he beat her up, breaking her nose.


“I [had] to wait until he got locked up before I could come back to St. Pete,” she says. “So I called my mom, I’m like, ‘I don’t care how you get the money. Send me a bus ticket to come back to St. Pete. This is where I feel safe at.’”


But when she got down here again, she found the situation at her mom’s was worse than before. She went back and forth from Florida to Alabama several times, “[trying] to relive my past with my family,” who, by that time, had left the state without giving her any contact information. Finally, she found herself back in St. Petersburg, this time on the streets.


“We believe that there are at least 50,000 youth who sleep for six months or more on the streets of the United States each year,” says Richard Hooks Wayman, a senior policy analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Current federal funding only offers housing assistance to less than 4,000 of them.”


Youth on the streets — particularly young women like Elf — are subject to disease, sexual abuse, drug abuse, physical assault and a slew of other environmental and situational dangers including exposure, infection and arrest. Not only that, but studies have shown that first-time homelessness is a good indicator of long-term homelessness. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Public Health surveyed 377 occupants of a community shelter, then continued to follow them in 6-month intervals for the next 18 months. “Eighty-one percent of participants returned to community housing during the follow-up period,” and “the median duration of homelessness was 190 days.” That means that, because Elf is homeless now, particularly at such a young age, her chances of being homeless again are significantly higher.


Resources are limited for older youth, but not impossible to find. Family Resources, a non-profit organization providing youth and family services to Pinellas and Pasco residents, offers a program called StreetSafe. “[It’s] funded by the US Dept of Health and Human Services through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act,” explains Jane Harper, family resources president and CEO. “We have two outreach workers who try to contact runaway and homeless youth in St. Pete and surrounding areas, develop a relationship with them and try to help them get off the streets into safe shelter or other living arrangements.” The age range, she says, is usually 16–25.


And, as difficult as adult services are to obtain sometimes, Elf has been eligible to receive benefits like food stamps since she turned 18. Unfortunately, since she was fired from her last job at Arby’s, where she worked for seven months, she’s probably ineligible to receive unemployment. “I’m going through an appeal,” she says. “I don’t really know how to do all that, but I’m trying.”


Other former foster youth in Florida realize how difficult it is to transition into adulthood without parental guidance. In 2005, Florida’s Children First and a league of former foster youth founded Florida Youth SHINE to support youth transitioning out of foster care with much-needed resources and education. Among other things, Youth SHINE members testify in Tallahassee on behalf of children currently in the foster system. They also have a Facebook page with 42 friends, which serves as an active board to help former foster youth network and share strategies. Their current Statewide Board Vice Chair, Derrick Riggins, recently earned his Masters in Social Work and is going to law school.


“They’ve persevered, they’ve been through a lot,” says Abramowitz, “and when they overcome it, nothing slows them down after that.”

In the state of Florida last year, an average of 34,934 children per month were in DCF’s custody. According to the Urban Institute, nationwide over 800,000 children are in state custody on any given day. A state provides Out of Home Care for a minor when a parent or parents are deemed to be incapable of providing adequate social, emotional or physical care for their children. Unfortunately, the care children receive in state custody is not always enough.

According to a report by the Urban Institute, “Foster children have more health problems, especially mental health problems, than the general population or the population of poor children … As many as 80 percent of youth involved with child welfare agencies have emotional or behavioral disorders, developmental delays, or other issues requiring mental health intervention,” compared to the general population, where the number hovers around 20 percent.

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