“Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.” As a young(er) mom, I never quite understood what that phrase meant.
How could my cherubs’ problems get any more pressing than trying to figure out why they were crying or convincing them to eat a balanced diet? Why were these old(er), more jaded moms trying to minimize the daily drama that negotiating with a preschooler brings? With each passing year and stage of childhood, however, I’ve come to see what I was missing. Each decision made, each feeling felt, each lesson learned can now more easily be extrapolated into adulthood.
As an attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, I witness that to an even greater degree with the young adults in extended foster care that I represent.
Under both federal and state law, youth can remain in Connecticut’s foster care system past age 18, thanks to the aptly titled Fostering Connections to Success Act. Such legislation was initially passed due to statistics evidencing that youth aging out of foster care are the most at-risk in our society: At-risk of homelessness. At-risk of dropping out of school. At-risk of unemployment. At-risk of incarceration. At-risk for a lifetime of untreated mental health issues. At-risk of being trafficked.
These are our kids, the ones who our state was tasked with the responsibility of raising, who we failed to find reliable, permanent life connections for as they transition to adulthood.
As it stands now, however, these same “transition age youth” — those who have been entitled to attorneys since the day the Department of Children and Families filed paperwork in court alleging that they’d been abused or neglected — lose their court-appointed attorneys the day they turn 18: Attorneys who have represented them since they were first removed from their parents and placed into the state’s care. Attorneys who are needed not merely to give them a voice in court, but to advocate at school meetings, keep various systems accountable to the law, facilitate communication with providers, negotiate contracts with DCF, ask hard questions, and counsel them on significant life decisions. Attorneys who act, in many ways, as a parent would, in helping to ensure a more successful launch into adulthood.
And yet, starting as high school sophomores, juniors, or seniors, older foster youth in Connecticut are left to navigate such interactions by themselves.
For children involved in our legal system, their attorney is the only person in their life with an unwavering ethical duty of loyalty to serve them, and them alone. Attorneys negotiate and empower youth with knowledge of their rights. In many cases, attorneys also assist social workers in pushing back on larger systems on behalf of the youth, and help mediate conversations between the youth and more powerful agencies. But most importantly, attorneys enforce the many entitlements that exist under our law and policy for this older population who remain in the state’s care.
There are countless stories of those older foster youth lucky enough to get an attorney.
There is the 19 year-old who called because he was unable to find employment – one of the requirements of his remaining in extended foster care – and as a result, was being threatened with discharge from DCF. The agency had lost his green card years ago, and as a result, he was unable to work, obtain a Social Security card and state ID, or receive any sort of stipend. After an administrative hearing on the matter, the hearing officer ruled that the youth was entitled to stay in care, ordering DCF to make better efforts to assist him.
There is the 18 year-old who had been in and out of DCF care since age 2. Shortly before turning 18, she was placed in a group home, which ended up being involved with a trafficking ring. DCF then moved her to Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown. She and her hospital worker called looking for help advocating for a discharge plan, as the agency had yet to find her a placement, despite her being clinically ready to leave. An attorney was able to help navigate the situation and ensure her timely release.
Then there is the 20 year-old who called looking for help in navigating an administrative hearing with DCF, which was looking to discharge her from care based on a breakdown of communication with her social worker. She had been in foster care since age 13 and had no one else to turn to, until an attorney intervened and was able to help mediate the issues, enforce her rights, push for her enrollment in community college, and salvage the relationship with her worker.
Another case: The 18 year-old, calling from juvenile detention with no other resources to turn to, after receiving a DCF discharge notice just days after his birthday due to his being incarcerated.
Another: The 19 year-old looking for advocacy assistance when DCF threatened to discharge her after a rough academic semester in college due to a decline in her mental health and inability to get to class.
And another: The 20 year-old who was looking to attend college after DCF had determined she wasn’t “college material,” despite policy indicating an obligation to pursue further efforts with her.
And yet another: The 19 year-old experiencing homelessness, thus making it difficult for him to be consistent in therapy or attend classes, and yes, who DCF was thus threatening to discharge as a result.
These are just a handful of the youth with who have been resourceful enough to reach out to our organization to ask for assistance. There are many, however, who go without. These are the youth who we will never hear from, those without the wherewithal to pick up a phone to call for help. These are the youth who will benefit from the passage of S.B. 1008, entitling youth in foster care to keep their court-appointed attorneys past age 18, for as long as their involvement with DCF and the juvenile court continues.
Nationwide, there has long been consensus and widespread support for this need among those in the field; almost half the states continue to fund attorneys for their youth in extended foster care in some form or another. The only thing preventing Connecticut from doing so at this point is fiscal restraint.
It’s time we join the ranks. It’s time we invest in supporting our older foster youth as they navigate some of the biggest and most challenging transitions of their lives; the passage of S.B. 1008 can be the start.
Stacy Schleif is the Director of the Child Welfare Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford.