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Now that Kayla is eighteen, she's aged out of the foster care system and no longer gets the stipend, but she was able to get a six-month extension on her eighteen-month FUP voucher and will receive that until May. She's going to Red Rocks Community College, planning to work in juvenile probation, and started this month as an AmeriCorps volunteer tracking kids who aren't showing up for school. She talks to her Chafee worker every other week, usually to get help with her budget, and the program still helps her out with expenses like car insurance.
There's a banging in the next room. "Are you up?" Kayla calls to Adam as she heads into his room. He comes into the living room pulling a wagon full of toy cars, then cuddles shyly next to his mom on the couch. When he jumps up to get his toys, Kayla looks at him with a furrowed brow. He just got a haircut, and she thinks it's too short. He doesn't look like a baby anymore, she says sadly, as if noticing this for the first time.
Colene Robinson doesn't often hear stories like Kayla Figueroa's. For most of the kids she knows coming out of foster care, stability isn't something they can even imagine. "These are invisible kids," says the clinical professor at the University of Colorado's law school. "These kids are homeless every night. These are the kids sleeping anywhere they can. Just talking to some kids who are going to be aging out soon in Boulder County, they know what their options are going to be -- which field, park, bridge. They know what that is. But they don't know how to envision themselves in an apartment with a job."
Take Dannie Goff, for example. Starting when he was seven, he was bounced around among foster homes, group homes, shelters and residential treatment centers. When he was fifteen, he was sentenced to two years in the Division of Youth Corrections. At seventeen, he went through a three-month independent-living program through the DYC and then was released and sent off on his own. He was homeless within weeks. Today, at nineteen, he sleeps on the heating grates of the Denver City and County Building.
The kind of help that social services and the Chafee program provide to young people like Kayla mean nothing to Dannie. He's not eligible for them. He's one of many former foster kids who slip through the cracks because of when and how they left the state foster-care system. In fact, the only reason Kayla is eligible for the help she receives from Chafee is because Jefferson County reopened her child-welfare case when she was seventeen, after Adam had been taken from her. It was a rare decision, and one the judge didn't have to make.
In Colorado, counties are only obligated to provide services to young people who have open dependency-and-neglect cases. A child's case remains open as long as they are in out-of-home placement. Cases close when children are reunified with parents or adopted. Otherwise, dependency-and-neglect cases can close when a child "ages out" -- meaning he or she turns eighteen, runs away or refuses services. Judges can choose to keep a case open until a youth turns 21, but that's rare. When a kid enters the DYC, his or her child-welfare case is automatically closed.
The federal Chafee program provides a way for foster kids whose cases have been closed to still access some services until they turn 21. In Colorado, however, not every former foster youth is eligible. The state has interpreted the Chafee Act to mean that only those whose cases were closed on or after their eighteenth birthdays are eligible for services post-foster care, an interpretation with which Kippi Clausen takes issue. That means, for example, that if a teen runs away before he turns eighteen and a judge closes his case, he won't be able to access services later. Similarly, when a young person leaves the Division of Youth Corrections, he isn't eligible for any Chafee services unless a judge decides to reopen his case.
"If the child was in the county's custody and ran away at their seventeenth birthday, then [the county] could have gone and asked the court to dismiss the dependency-and-neglect action," says Sharen Ford of the Colorado Department of Human Services. "The court doesn't have to. The court can say, 'This case is going to stay open. Find the kid.' So when they find the kid, they can pick up services again and they continue on. If the court closed the case, then the county doesn't have a legal responsibility to provide any services."
Judges like Chris Melonakis in Adams County are aware of how important it is for youth to be able to access services and thus intentionally keeps cases open until a child is 21, whenever possible. "The entire [federal] funding stream ends when they're out of the system," he says. "It really changes the dynamic and willingness of social services to work with them. Once the case is gone and a kid is over eighteen, you've lost jurisdiction. That's why you have to make an impact before they get out. A couple of things you can do as a court is to bring the young person in and talk to them, treat them like a human being, try to give them some counseling and guidance. It's amazing how often they will listen to you. A lot of times what young people want is just to be heard. They want to have their dignity preserved and the feeling that they matter, especially for these young people that have been in foster care for years and years. It's a really hard way to live."