Foster children who turn 18 have a choice: Go to school full-time and remain in the state’s care for three more years — or choose another path and leave the system. Last year 79 of the 440 foster children in Connecticut “aged out” because they did not enroll in a college or technical school.

But a new state program aims to keep about 30 to 40 of those foster children under state care by providing subsidized housing, job training and formal employment at jobs paying above minimum wage.

“We want to seduce kids to stay [in state care] so we can teach them to be successful adults,” said Brett Rayford, director of adolescent and juvenile justice services at the Department of Children and Families.  The program, called Community, Housing, Employment and Enrichment Resources (CHEER), will likely launch this summer.

Connecticut is currently one of many states that extends care to foster children until their 21st birthday (or, in certain cases, until they are 23), but only if those children enroll in a full-time education program or another full-time program approved by DCF Commissioner Joette Katz. Otherwise, foster children lose eligibility for additional years of care, though they can apply for re-entry into the system and if they agree to continue their schooling.

Former foster care youth who re-enter state care will not be able to participate in CHEER.

The state’s full-time education requirement has been criticized by those who feel the policy does not offer enough flexibility for the variety of foster care children DCF serves.

That said, one of the department’s main objectives is to keep all 18-year-olds under state care until they turn 21, said DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt.

“Sometimes we have young people who are kind of frustrated with being in care who will walk away,” Rayford said. “We do everything we can to have them stay with us.”

CHEER comes on the heels of a recent report by the state’s Legislative Program Review and Investigations (PRI) committee, which revealed that in 2012, 30 percent of youth aging out of care at age 18 or older planned to live with family — an 8 percent increase from the previous year. But the report also showed that only 11 percent of 18-year-olds discharged in 2012 were employed full-time when they left state care — down from 16 percent in 2011.

Overview of CHEER
DCF designed CHEER to promote self-sufficiency and confidence, so the 18 month program initially offers intensive support and then incrementally reduces state oversight.
CHEER requires all program participants to work full-time. If they lose their job, they are required to inform their Social Worker within 72 hours.
Participants save 50 percent of their salary throughout the duration of the program and receive monthly stipends for rent, utilities, food, transportation, and clothing.
DCF rolls back 25 percent of financial support after 10 months, and 50 percent of support after 13 months.
Participants meet with a social worker at least once a month to review budget plans and housing arrangements.
Source: Department of Children and Families
Martha Stone:
Martha Stone: “That policy needs to be looked at really carefully…” Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror
Martha Stone: “That policy needs to be looked at really carefully…” Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, has been a critic of the state’s full-time education requirement for aging out youth.

She sees CHEER as a promising solution for foster care children unprepared or uninterested in college, and hopes that DCF will closely monitor the financial scale-backs that take place throughout the duration of the program.

“That policy needs to be looked at really carefully and maybe adjusted if it’s just too fast,” Stone said.

Nationally, high rates of homelessness continue to plague foster care systems. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last month that approximately 25,000 youth exit the foster care system each year without any permanent living situation, and between 11 and 37 percent of youth who age out of foster care nationally have experienced homelessness.

In their report, the PRI committee recommended that DCF expand subsidized housing and supportive services for foster care children who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

“The Department is well are of how hard it is to be placed into foster care,” Rayford said. “Nationally, being in foster care is a very difficult experience.”

DCF plans to grow CHEER in the future, but Rayford said he was not encouraged to start with a huge number of participants. At this point, he hopes the Department can convince a third to a half of the kids who usually walk away to stay under state care.

If DCF meets that goal, “We will be happy,” he said.

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