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Pushing Foster Children Off the Plank

Kayla Gordon was emancipated from foster care during California's budget crisis. It wasn't easy.


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Kayla Gordon was irritated, but she answered all the questions anyway, parsing out pieces of her life for the woman across the table. There didn't seem to be much of an age difference between them, but the woman wouldn't say how old she was. After all, Kayla was there to answer the questions, not ask them. The woman behind the computer was writing everything down.

Kayla was nineteen, nearly twenty, and her childhood in California's troubled foster care system had been horrific — molestation, beatings, betrayal. Now, she was applying for admission to a program designed to help teens too old for foster care. She and the woman sat in a private room in a small office in a squat building near Concord BART.

The woman across the table worked her way through all 33 pages of Kayla's application, delving deep into her past. What were the circumstances around you entering the foster care system? Kayla herself wasn't so sure. She knows she entered foster care as a newborn, but isn't sure if she was taken away or if her mother gave her up voluntarily. Social workers snapped most of her baby pictures; instead of going into a family album, they were put in her case file.

How many foster care placements have you experienced? Kayla couldn't answer that one either, incapable of counting up her exact number of foster families, group homes, stints in juvenile hall, or time spent in limbo. She'd never seen her file from Southern California, where she was born. Her best guess puts the number around forty, but it could be as high as fifty.

What was your final foster care placement? It had been a supervised living arrangement in Antioch where she shared an apartment with a roommate. There was a 10 p.m. curfew and an adult living nearby. It was a housing model that lets teens under the age of eighteen practice living on their own. But Kayla's eighteenth birthday would mean she'd be forced to move once again.

That's because eighteen is the age at which most Californians in foster care leave the system. With only a few exceptions, that's the rule in every state, even though studies agree that young adults are now becoming self-sufficient much later than they used to. On top of that, jobs are scarce; in 2009, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were either unemployed or out of the workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. A 2009 Pew Research survey found that the recession prompted one in every eight 22- to 29-year-olds to move back in with their parents. But young adults who grew up in foster care typically lack that option.

One social worker calls expelling teens from foster care at age eighteen "pushing them off the plank," and foster care advocates have called that moment the "transition cliff." Kayla certainly remembers dreading that day. "I was scared when I was seventeen," she said. "You don't know what was going to happen."

As her eighteenth birthday approached, nothing was panning out. Her biological family hadn't ever been part of her life — she had only recently learned anything about them. She and her mother had never even spoken, and her father was serving time in prison. Kayla knew she'd have to move out of her apartment, but she didn't have anywhere to go. She was hoping something would change.

When nothing did, she packed what she could in her car and, after eighteen years of state support, Kayla was suddenly on her own. She had nowhere to go, and now can't remember where she slept that night. She can't remember many things. "For some reason, my mind blocks out the really, really painful stuff," she said.

Over the next six months, she moved around a lot. For a while, she rented a room in Antioch, but got kicked out. She spent a couple months with the family of her boyfriend at the time, but ultimately couldn't stay.

So when the woman across the table asked what Kayla hoped to gain from the program to which she was applying, Kayla had no trouble answering that question. "Stability," she said.

The formal term for exiting foster care as an adult is "emancipation." The word carries connotations of freedom and liberation, and in most contexts, it's steeped in positivity and a sense of triumph. But for an eighteen-year-old with no permanent home or family to rely upon, emancipation can feel like having the rug pulled out from under you. The more common term for it in the foster care community is "aging out." The services and support that foster care provided are abruptly gone.

Nationwide, 25,000 teens age out of foster care each year, and Californians represent about 20 percent of that number. Within two years of emancipation, a 2007 report by the Pew Charitable Trust found, one in five will be homeless and one in four will be incarcerated.

Many move back in with their birth parents, often to find that a formerly abusive situation hasn't changed. Others couch-surf. Some end up on the street. Because so many former foster youth have to focus on finding stable housing, their education often suffers. A 2003 study by the Casey Family Program found that just about half graduate from high school. And only 1 to 5 percent ever earn college degrees.

A bill now before the state legislature would give teens in foster care the choice to remain in the system until they turn 21. In January, AB 12 passed unanimously in the Assembly, and it is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it becomes law, California will receive federal support to help young adults who choose to remain in foster care. Kayla said she would have done this to support her studies, despite how she fared within the foster care system.