Where I live At? Group Home Living and Aging Out of Foster Care

(Excerpt from upcoming book)

He sat across my desk looking for a way to say it without giving away the details. Devin is 17. He’s been in placement since he first learned how to read. Placement is a social work term for the kid’s been in at least one group home or youth residential facility. Devin’s been in eight different group homes; and he’s trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go back to the last place he was living at. I run a school for youth who don’t like school. If we can’t help him find an alternative—ask Devin and he’ll say it’s his best friend’s father agreeing to have him stay with them—the Department of Social Services may have to interrupt his education in order to establish his living status. I’m also an administrator who doesn’t act like an administrator or what my students call ops, as in operatives; as in double agents who say they’re youth advocates but have to follow a system that works against young people. Devin has proof that he’s in open and safe hands. But he’s still learning how to trust again. So it’s baby steps until he’s in a setting where the ground is steady enough for planning the big moves he sees in his head.

There are many other youth facing the same or similar or worse situations. Like Devin, they will soon age out of the foster care system; and it will be up to him to figure out what he plans on doing with his life once he’s 18. He’ll still have services nationally designed and state financed for him until he reaches 21; maybe even have some form of aftercare offered to him towards independent living. But right now, he’s in a bind. He can’t be with his parents or relatives because their homelife helped put him in foster care. He has options but doesn’t like them. He finally found the right school for him but has to leave. And he’s got three weeks to decide.

This is the part where a protective staff puts their resources and hearts together for the sake of one student’s future. And this we do for the next ones to follow. Because these days it’s no longer a surprise to find out that a High School student is in foster care or that they’re homeless while still managing to keep good grades which is why teachers can’t just be teachers if they want to figure out why their students are failing or stopped showing up altogether. School administrators can’t follow the usual formula if they want their numbers to improve. We’re now forced to look at the faces and stories behind the numbers and come up with alternative ways to fulfill our professional missions within the rules and policies presented to us.

He can’t be with his parents or relatives because their homelife helped put him in foster care. He has options but doesn’t like them. He finally found the right school for him but has to leave. And he’s got three weeks to decide.

Devin will eventually make a decision or a decision will be made for him, whether he likes it or not. The ideal situation for Devin may not be the ideal plan for the district or State, especially if funding is involved; and funding is almost always at the core of the matter— Who’s gonna pick up Devin’s tab for foster care services? But what we want to focus on here is what happens to him after he exits the system. Does he automatically go to his biological parents? Does he even know who they are? How does he go about finding them? Does he know his blood by name and address but can’t afford to go back to them for fear of placing himself in an environment not healthy for his overall welfare? Are there other options in terms of living arrangements where he’ll be able to reinvent himself once he’s 18? Does he have friends who can take him in? Does his girlfriend have options he can benefit from? If he’s a young father, what then does reinventing one’s self looks like if he can barely support himself? Will the streets be his only recourse or will he attend a community college with a dorm just to have a place to stay? If Devin is too young to be in an adult homeless shelter yet too old to receive childcare, where does that put him? Did he receive life skills and job readiness classes? If he has a criminal record, what employer is willing to hire him without judgment or fear? What crime lord in his hood is ready to exploit his dilemma?

There’re even more questions. How’s his self-esteem? Does he have any mental or physical challenges? Does he have a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse? Is Family Court involved? Does he have healthcare, transportation to and from, a follow up person who monitors his progress? If he were female, there’d be the added potential for pregnancy concerns. If he’s same gender loving but off the radar, will he be able to still get the help he needs or will he need special placement for the sake of our ignorance and his protection?

Before I became interested in what happens to young people once they age out of foster care, I was what many youth residential facilities call a team leader which meant I was responsible for the cottage I was assigned to. A cottage, in this sense, is not a quaint little house set off a mountainside or by a lake, but one of the temporary youth homes within a large landscape that can hold as many cottages as the facility allows, along with onsite educational, recreational, counseling and medical centers. Think of it as one of several group homes within an enclosed setting where the services don’t have to come to the staff because they’re already there as part of the day to day services offered to the youth residents and their parents or guardians. As one of the several team leaders on site, I managed my cottage, trained and supervised my residential staff and provided therapeutic counseling and family mediation to the young males on my watch (female team leaders were assigned to the female cottages) and the often frustrated parents and even grandparents who came with the contract.

I actually started off as a high school teacher for incarcerated 16-21yrlds, but my natural ability to relate to hard to reach students led me to switching to a career in counseling instead, although I’ve always felt that teaching and counseling work hand in hand. Because the personal affects the academics and vice versa, so by the time I left New York City to provide family mediation for at risk youth in North Carolina, I was already applying counseling theories and interventions specifically modeled for marginalized youth. And since every professional assignment I took on up to this point involved Black and Brown adolescents and young adults, my thought process when it came to serving as a behavioral interventionist came from a foundation that considered racism as a form of trauma individually, collectively and generationally. But now I was at a work setting where my clients didn’t look like me. Maybe one or two out of the usual 20 or so caseload. And it wasn’t necessarily about race but more about Black folk not being able to afford sending their troubled sons and daughters to a residential treatment facility. The other being the strong anti-therapy sentiments in our communities, especially in the South where the majority of African Americans preferred Jesus over mental therapy.

I had to pop a few mental balloons on each side of the divide before they were able to step out of their assumptions on effective intervening, anger managing, gender, sexuality, good, bad, smart, slow, normal, abnormal. Whatever else they’d learn to be fact was now being dissected in a way they had never experienced before.

I had a staff of seven residential counselors straight out of undergraduate college and either interested in pursuing a career in youth development or just needed a job. Their duties included sleepovers which was always the toughest part of the job for them because it meant being away from their homes for weeks at a time, including weekends, and living alongside the same kids they fed, disciplined and handed medication to. I had never been a team leader of anything before, but I knew I could bring parts of my self to the challenge; uncommon sense approaches that my employer hadn’t considered, like junior counselors not only looking after their assigned teens but facilitating general life skills workshops; not only disciplining them but inspiring them. And not only giving them their meds, but joining me at the family sessions, sometimes sitting behind a two-way mirror to observe, take notes and later provide feedback essential to their own professional development.

My staff was also half rural White and half urban Black with attitudes about race and culture already set in their minds. What was apparent from the day I met them was how such attitudes had a direct affect on their counseling skills. I had to pop a few mental balloons on each side of the divide before they were able to step out of their assumptions about effective intervening, anger managing, gender, sexuality, good, bad, smart, slow, normal, abnormal. Whatever else they’d learn to be fact was now being dissected in a way they had never experienced before. To me, this was what the calling was all about if you were there for the commitment - to allow yourself to learn from damaged people even younger than you and offer solutions your college professor couldn’t find in a textbook. I was also there to remind them that youth advocacy wasn’t about advocating for only populations they felt comfortable working with; that being a youth advocate means advocating for all youth or you’re part of the problem and not the solution. Some of them went on to becoming team leaders in their own right. Some returned to college for their graduate degrees. And some just plain quit after realizing the amount of commitment it takes to be a team leader in training....