All Grown Up

At eighteen, these foster kids aged out of a system that denied them a childhood.

After six months, Grandma Lou took Cabrini and met Lori and the kids in South Dakota for a vacation. "Cabrini was just impossible," Lori says. "Absolutely impossible. Terrible to my mom, and to me, too. It was that teenage attitude, and I was like, 'My mom's too old for this. Mom, you can't do this.' My mom did not throw the towel in. I threw it in for her."

Cabrini was in five more homes after that, two of which she ran away from. She never went far, always letting her caseworker know exactly where she was and asking her to please not make her go back to that home. By her junior year, Cabrini had been moved to Pueblo. A family there was interested in adopting her, but the parents treated Cabrini like their housemaid. She didn't have to fight this adoption, though: The family lost their state foster-home license, required by law in order to take in children, after their adult son got caught messing around with a fourteen-year-old foster girl. By the time Cabrini graduated from high school in Pueblo and turned eighteen, two foster homes later, she'd decided she was done. "I just want out," she told her caseworker. "I don't care about you guys helping me. I just want out. I just want to be on my own."

Kippi Clausen
Anthony Camera
Kippi Clausen

Sharen Ford hurries to eat a microwaved lunch in her small office between appointments. This corner of the Colorado Department of Human Services is a cramped maze of overstuffed cubicles. Ford is the manager of the department's "permanency unit," which works toward getting kids out of foster care. With 13,715 out-of-home cases currently open in Colorado -- some involving more than one child -- she has her work cut out for her.

Out-of-home placement is a last resort for counties. They receive and investigate reports of children being neglected or abused, and if they find the accusations to have merit, a dependency-and-neglect case is filed in juvenile court. A judge then decides if a child should be removed from a home because it is unsafe. While these children are in foster care, the county works toward reunifying them with their parents, who may be in need of drug or alcohol treatment or other counseling. On average, the cost of out-of-home placement is $64.24 per child, per day. Sometimes the process takes years, with a county repeatedly placing a child back with their family and then having to remove the child as a parent relapses or struggles with some other problem. When it's clear that a child can't be safely reunified, the court terminates the parental rights and seeks an adoptive home. The case stays open as long as the child is in limbo.

Reunification or a successful adoption is always the goal. "When that does not occur, then we try to find youth a permanent connection," Ford explains. "Hopefully, more than one adult who says, 'Come hard times, here I am. You can do Christmas with us, the major birthdays and holidays, things you want to celebrate. We're here to stay connected to your life, and not just for a moment.' Unfortunately, there are times our youth are leaving us and they're going back to nothing, and that's hard."

Part of working toward permanency is preparing young people for life on their own, and historically, states have had independent-living programs that administered training on budgeting and resumé-writing for foster kids approaching eighteen. In 1999, the national Foster Care Independence Act expanded the scope and eligibility of such programs with the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, and Congress doubled federal funding to $140 million annually.

Colorado now writes and submits its own Chafee plans, and the counties administer the program, which is open to foster kids over sixteen and some former foster kids up to 21. Youth who want to participate get a Chafee worker, who helps them with everything from financial literacy and budgeting to college applications and job placement. Chafee administers education and training vouchers and can pay directly for things such as bus passes, car insurance, work clothes and school supplies. In some cases, the program can assist with housing costs, such as a first month's rent and furniture.

In addition to Chafee, Colorado has found a way to use federal Section 8 housing dollars to help former foster kids.

Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers provide rental subsidies to families with children who have been placed, or are at risk of placement, in foster care primarily because the family lacks adequate housing. In 2001, Colorado received 100 FUP vouchers specifically for foster youth who became homeless. The non-profit organizations Family Tree, Volunteers of America and Urban Peak administer the eighteen-month vouchers and provide case management for the youth that receive them. "But you have to be homeless to access a FUP voucher," Ford says. "We would prefer that our kids not be in a homeless situation, but sometimes they are."

Kayla Figueroa looks younger than her eighteen years. She has dark brown, neatly curled hair and flawless skin, wears heavy eye makeup, chews gum and shows off adorable dimples when she smiles. She slouches low on her sofa, sliding lower and lower, until she's literally on her back, digging through her purse for lip gloss as she talks, fast. This teenager who should have just finished high school is chatting excitedly about starting her second year of college, about her two-year-old son, Adam, and about the apartment they share thanks to a FUP voucher and Chafee. "The thing I like about the Chafee program is they help me be stable," she says. "It's amazing, after all I've been through, that my life is settled."

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