West End Neighborhood House

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Delaware’s children: On their own after foster care

The News Journal

By Mike Chalmers

One day when Lorri Moxey was 13, her mother told her she needed a yearlong break from her kids.

“When I walked into the house, all my stuff was packed and there was a van parked outside,” said Moxey, now 20.

“I didn’t know what foster care was,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going. By the age of 14, I knew she wasn’t coming back. She doesn’t want to be a mother.”

Like many teenagers who enter Delaware’s foster care system, Moxey was not adopted and never went back to her family. She “aged out” of the system when she finished high school last summer at age 19. Most leave when they turn 18.

Moxey got lucky, though. One of her former foster mothers took her in until she could get on her feet. But others struggle with the transition to adulthood and may end up homeless, in jail or addicted to drugs, experts said.

With the number of teenagers aging out of the system nearly doubling in the past decade, Delaware is about to make big changes to help them line up a home, a job, an education and the little things that new adults need to go out on their own.

“When I turned 18, I still needed help from my family,” said Vivian L. Rapposelli, secretary of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.

“You don’t turn a switch and you’re automatically emotionally, mentally, socially able to cope with adult issues, especially this population,” she said.

In Delaware, the number of youth aging out grew from 51 in fiscal year 2000 to 94 in fiscal year 2010, state figures show. The number peaked at 108 in 2009.

The state is now caring for 104 youth ages 17 or 18, said Felicia Kellum, manager of independent living programs for the Delaware Division of Family Services.

Nationwide, the number aging out increased 46 percent, from 20,172 in fiscal year 2000 to 29,516 in fiscal year 2008, the most recent year for which national figures are available, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families.

Most entered the system as teenagers, often bringing with them more mental, emotional or social troubles than younger children, experts said. Added to that mix are a typical teenager’s insecurity and rebellion.

“They’re feeling a sense of abandonment overlaying all the normal teen issues,” said DFS Director Laura Miles. “Everything that comes with being a teenager presents itself.”

Over the past year, several state agencies have focused on the needs of Moxey and about 30 other youth who have recently left or will soon leave foster care. Officials then designed programs and changed policies to address those needs, hoping the efforts will help all foster youth.

The child-welfare department is working with the departments of Labor, Education, Correction and Health and Social Services, as well as the Delaware State Housing Authority and several nonprofit groups, Rapposelli said.

Among the expected changes:

• Senate Bill 113, which lets Family Court stay involved with former foster youth until age 21, is scheduled to be signed by Gov. Jack Markell today.

• Thirty subsidized housing vouchers have been designated for former foster youth to help them find homes.

• Foster youth can now apply for a housing voucher at age 16, instead of 18, because the waiting list can be almost two years long.

• Volunteer mentors are helping current and former foster youth learn skills such as how to write a résumé, interview for a job and manage their money.

• Delaware State University is providing year-round housing for two former foster youth this fall.

One of them is 21-year-old Christella St. Juste, who entered foster care in 2005 because of trouble with her parents. She wants to become a civil rights lawyer.

“Some kids at 18 might think they’re grown, but you still have a child’s mind at that point,” said St. Juste, who works at McDonald’s and is living with her former foster mother in Blades.

“Living on your own would have been hard,” she said. “Sometimes I’m shocked that I’ve made it this far.”

Illinois allows youth to stay in foster care until age 21, so more of them go to college than their counterparts in other states, said Amy Dworsky, a senior researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, which studies child welfare issues.

Illinois is one of several states that go beyond what Delaware has done to help foster care youth after they turn 18, she said.

Others require child-welfare agencies to develop detailed plans for employment, education, housing and other needs.

More states have passed such “extended jurisdiction” laws recently to take advantage of Fostering Connections, a new federal law that reimburses states for a portion of youths’ care, she said.

Delaware’s pending law, S.B. 113, has a narrower focus than other states’ measures and would not apply to every youth leaving foster care, said Delaware Child Advocate Tania Culley. It would let former foster youth ask Family Court for help getting into a job training or support program, she said.

“It’s a start,” Culley said. “It’s really going to be an education for all of us, using the courts to ‘encourage’ all of us to work together.”

West End Neighborhood House, a Wilmington-based nonprofit social service agency, also is expanding its services for former foster youth.

The group is expanding its Life Lines program, which has provided homes for 204 former foster youth since it began in 2001, said program director Hayley Schmittinger.

West End can serve 56 youth at a time and has plans to add at least 10 more spaces soon, she said.

Moxey, who has a voucher for subsidized housing, is searching for a home in Sussex County. She works at Stockley Center in Georgetown and Spencer House in Milford, helping to dress and feed people with mental and physical disabilities.

Moxey said other youth leaving foster care need a lot of help and support to make it.

But they also need someone to tell them it’s possible, she said.

“A lot of times, foster kids get discouraged,” Moxey said. “They need to stop being so mad at the world because of what their parents did to them. They need to hear they can do it.”