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Aging Out of Foster Care in New York City

When kids in foster care turn 21, they get eased out of the system. But the transition is often tricky for them. Homelessness is common among former foster youth.

Our reporter Alissa Escarce spoke with two young people on the brink of adulthood — about what it’s like to live through this change.

Lee turned 21 in February, and she’s trying to get her life together, fast. That’s because she’s still in foster care, but she doesn’t know for how long. Today she’s trying to get a job.

Lee: We are headed to Covenant House. I took my CNA classes there.

CNA is Certified Nurse’s Assistant. Lee is going to meet a career counselor, to try to find a job in a nursing home. She says she likes helping people–and it would pay more than minimum wage.

Lee’s hair is black at the roots and fades to burgundy around her shoulders. She’s wearing a simple black dress, and shoes that are covered with pictures of hamburgers.

Lee isn’t her first name–she wants to stay anonymous.

She darts into the concrete high-rise of Covenant House. An hour later she’s back outside.

Lee: He referred me to a nursing home, and he referred me to two fast food restaurants, so I’m going to go check all of those out.

Plenty of 21-year-olds need a job.

Lee: But it’s like, when you’re 21 and in foster care, there’s even more pressure. Cause you have to get off the system.

The system hasn’t kicked her out yet, even though she’s 21. That’s because she doesn’t have anywhere to go. She can’t afford her own apartment, and she’s on a waiting list for public housing. So far she’s been waiting a year and a half.

Lee is eager to be on her own. It’s harder these days to follow her foster mom’s rules, like a 10 pm curfew. She says they’ve been arguing.

Lee: It’s like, sometimes, when I get into disagreements with my foster mom, she doesn’t really understand me.

Lee has been in foster care since she was 11, and it’s been tough. She’s struggled with depression. For a while she was cutting herself.

Lee: I look around, and I see my friends and everyone like living with their families. It kind of sucks. Because I’m not living with mine.

Despite all that, Lee finished high school, and she started college. She’s dropped out, twice, but she’s planning to try again this fall.

Jane Spinak has worked with a lot of young people like Lee. She runs the Adolescent Representation Clinic at Columbia Law School.

Spinak: The agencies have taken over this parental role, and you just can’t stop it because somebody turns 18 or 20 or 21.

She says housing is the main challenge for young people aging out. But it’s not the only one.

Spinak: You have to say, what would happen if this were my child?  Because this is your child, you’ve taken this child away from their families, so what do you have to do to make sure this child makes that transition successfully into adulthood?

Bryant Alston is also in the middle of that transition.  He’s 19, and went into foster care four years ago. He says the support has changed his life. He was in a gang at 15. In school he called himself the “65 master”, because he aimed for a 65 percent on every assignment–a solid “D.”

Then he moved in with his current foster mom, Blanca. And for the first time in his life, he’s had a safe haven.

Bryant: She’s like the best foster parent. I’ve grown so much living with her. I’ve gotten so much stuff done that I wouldn’t have got done anywhere else.

He says his grades improved. These days he’s in trade school, and he hopes to get a union job as a building maintenance worker.

Bryant applied for housing last fall, two years before his twenty-first birthday, because that’s how long is usually takes to get to the head of the line. But then, to his surprise, an opportunity opened up for him to get an apartment almost immediately.

Bryant: The process is moving faster than everybody expected. So like, I’m not fully ready to leave, but I’m also not – like, I don’t want to sit there too long and find out I lost the opportunity to have something.

Vitzthum: I think it’s a shame if he gets this little taste of what having some unconditional love and support is like, and then has to leave it before he’s ready to.

Virginia Vitzthum edits a magazine called Represent, which is written by youth in foster care. She’s known Bryant for a couple years.

Vitzthum: A lot of times the difference between the kids who thrive after they age out and the ones who don’t is, they can point to one person, she cared about me.

Lee’s support system has been her best friend Tai. Today they’re hanging out in a park in Midtown. It’s sunny and hot, and they lounge in the shade under a crowded umbrella. They’ve been friends since middle school, and it hasn’t always been easy.

Tai: You never knew when she could get moved to some place. Like, it’s kind of scary to think about it.

If Lee gets an apartment, they’re hoping they can be roommates

Lee: We can get a king-sized bed and just share it.

Tai: We love reading. So we’ve got to have a bookstand.

Lee: I wanna get – You know how they have the little christmas lights that you can just drape around the house like a string? I wanna get those.

Lee hopes she’ll get an apartment in the next few months. This week she interviewed at a new Trader Joe’s store, and she thought it went well. She’s planning to enroll in college classes next week.

Alissa Escarce, Columbia Radio News.


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