All Grown Up

Stephanie Wooten learned a lot as a foster kid. She learned to pack light. She learned to keep her mouth shut. She learned that some foster parents are only in it for the money. But mostly, Stephanie learned that she couldn't count on anyone but herself. Her own mother made that reality abundantly clear.

The Adams County Department of Human Services took Stephanie from her drug-addicted mother and placed her in foster care at just eight months. By her eighteenth birthday, she had been moved more than twenty times, through foster homes, group homes, residential treatment centers, several scary trips back to mom and even a failed adoption. She was done letting a bureaucracy tell her where to live and what to do. So she left her last placement without a job or a high-school diploma, and when her living arrangement fell apart, Stephanie became homeless. She bounced between shelters, friends' couches and the 16th Street Mall. She started popping pills and drinking, then doing meth and coke. Selling it usually guaranteed her a sofa to sleep on.

Last October, the eighteen-year-old took a pregnancy test after coming off a five-day meth high. Actually, she took four pregnancy tests. They all came back positive. She didn't want to be a single mom without a high-school diploma, and she certainly wasn't going to poison her baby with drugs. There were things she'd always planned to do, like go to college and become a child psychologist. Maybe she still could; she'd just have to work harder than ever.

She restarted high school and then heard about AmeriCorps, a national network that connects volunteers with intensive service projects. It seemed like a good fit, since she could earn a stipend and money for college through volunteer work that would also give her experience for the career she wanted.

Kippi Clausen was aware of Stephanie's situation, because the girl had come to her organization, Bridging the Gap, several months earlier to open a savings account. So when Stephanie signed up to be an AmeriCorps member, Clausen wanted her assigned to BTG and working as a mentor.

"You're going to have a homeless youth work with you with all these issues?" people asked her skeptically.


Kippi Clausen is a big advocate of giving youth a voice. "Who best to help guide what needs to change, what might need to be different for foster youth, than a foster youth?" asks Clausen. "Who better to be an ally and advocate for youth than one who knows and has been there?"

These days, Clausen is focused on giving voice to one group of foster youth in particular, those who "age out" of the foster-care system, those kids who grow up in group and foster homes and who leave the system without returning to their families or being adopted into a new one.

Each year, as many as 25,000 kids across the country age out. They go directly from foster care to independence when a court closes the cases that put them into protective custody to begin with, usually because they've turned eighteen. When they step into the world on their own, they don't have the family supports most people take for granted. Of those kids who age out in Colorado, about 40 percent will be homeless within six months, Clausen says. Many are parents, and the majority have served time in the Division of Youth Corrections.

Bridging the Gap, which is under the auspices of Mile High United Way, is funded by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national foundation devoted solely to helping youth in foster care transition successfully into adulthood. Clausen started designing the program two and a half years ago, taking the Casey Initiative's community partnership grant and working with the Colorado Department of Human Services, the metro counties, nonprofits serving homeless teens and the foster youth themselves to create an organization that focuses on their unique needs. After only a year in operation, there are 145 participants, all of whom had to have been in foster care for at least one day on or after their fourteenth birthday. Bridging the Gap gives them twelve hours of financial literacy training, after which they can open a bank account, and every dollar they deposit is matched. They get a debit account with a $100 limit, and they can access an emergency fund, something Clausen believes is very important. "Think of any young person who calls Mom and says, 'I'm short of money, I don't have enough to make bills,'" she says. "These kids don't have that access."

Participants also create a life plan, and BTG tries to funnel the support to help them realize those goals. As Clausen works on building resources, she tries to make people understand how simple it can be to help a kid: "We had this one young man who had trouble with his car. He didn't understand what needed to be fixed. It was as simple as us being able to get an adult who understood car stuff that he could just get on the phone with.

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Jessica Centers