When he turned 18 and decided to go to college to become a social worker, Christian Ripke knew that his biological family wouldn’t be able to help him pay expenses.
Ripke, who will be a junior at Fordham University in the fall, has been in foster care since he was in high school and is a member of the Department of Children and Families’ Youth Advisory Board. He decided to stay in the foster care system to take advantage of the resources offered by the state.
Advocates and state officials in Connecticut have worked to keep young adults like Ripke engaged so they can continue to access state-sponsored services such as tuition aid, monthly cash stipends, housing assistance and case management past their 18th birthdays.
But even with the assistance, Ripke has worked long hours as a barista, sometimes skipping tutoring or group study sessions. He’s been denied for housing 11 times because of difficulties finding landlords who will work with the housing assistance. Now, he’s advocating for changes to state policy that could help him and his peers stay in school, such as more cash assistance to help pay bills each month or more time to access services including housing aid and case management.
“I feel like we’re pretty much forced to be employed, to juggle both,” Ripke said.
Young adults can opt to stay in the foster care system until they’re 23. Youths can still receive certain services up to age 21 and some funding for college education until they’re 23.
A couple of bills introduced this legislative session seek to address some of the issues Ripke says he and his peers face, including one that would increase the age for young adults to apply for and receive postsecondary education funding.
Advocates have also introduced additional programs and pushed for change at the state level. And the Department of Children and Families has introduced a new piece of case planning that centers the voices of foster youths.
Still, advocates say more needs to be done. The kids who are transitioning from care often need help with housing, planning for school and figuring out a career. They’re also at increased risk of homelessness, a problem that’s been exacerbated by a lack of housing.
“It’s rough out there,” said Linda Dixon, DCF’s administrator of transitional supports and success. “The rents are skyrocketing. It has hit our young adults hard.”
Older teenagers who are aging out of care may not have an adult in their lives who can help them navigate getting an apartment or applying to college or a first job. If they leave the foster care system, they also risk losing access to case workers, housing and other services.
“Youth are entitled to quite a bit if they age out of foster care and stay on with DCF on a voluntary basis,” said Stacy Schleif, director of the Child Welfare Advocacy Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “The one most talked about is help paying for college, help paying for housing.”
But those programs aren’t always implemented smoothly, Schleif added. Sometimes DCF workers don’t know about all the programs or don’t make referrals, meaning the help is delayed in getting to kids.
It’s also tough to keep the foster youths engaged. Some may want to leave the system because of trauma or to go back to living with their biological families, said Lauren Ruth, a research and policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children.
“A lot of kids develop a survival mindset that they use in foster homes,” Ripke said.
About 42% of Connecticut’s foster care population is over 18, well above the national average of 24%, according to 2021 data included in a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based group conducts research and advocates for policies about outcomes for kids.
Overall, fewer older teenagers and young adults are in foster care than in past years nationally, a trend that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as less contact with adults outside the home meant fewer calls to child protective services nationwide, according to the May 8 report from Annie E. Casey.
Some of that drop could also be due to increased efforts to keep families together and shorten stays in foster care. The report says that more research is needed to understand which specific policies are helping.
As the number of kids in foster care falls, Dixon said that likely means that the needs of youths who stay in care for long periods of time are more complicated.
“What that means to me is the youth who are staying with us are more complex than ever before,” she said.
Advocates said the complicated needs and array of programs mean that kids need more help navigating the system.
“I think there are a lot of really cool things available for young people of transition age, but the flow of information is really hard to navigate,” Ruth said.
Schleif said she’s seen fewer instances of youth receiving discharge notices and that there’s more awareness in the state their needs are complex — and that their futures need to be thought about in advance.
“Ideally, the planning should start before they turn 18,” she said. “Once they’re 18, they’re generally pretty close to graduating high school.”
In 2020, the federal government instituted a temporary ban on youths aging out of foster care. Any young people who wanted to stay in the system could. Advocates feared there would be a wave of people aging out when the restriction was lifted in September 2021.
But that wave never came in Connecticut.
The state Department of Children and Families developed a plan to help slowly transition youths out of care, including implementing a new tool termed the “Omega Process” that’s designed to get teenagers more involved in their case planning.
Omega stands for Outcome Mapping for Emerging Adults, and youths fill out an assessment and identify goals and expectations for their care team.
Emergency money also went to youths to help with things like rent or security deposits, Dixon said.
“In Connecticut, we do very well, at least percentage-wise, with youth staying in post-18,” Dixon said. “We offer strong supports for young adults, so when the moratorium ended, we expected to have 100 youth suddenly and abruptly leave us, and that just didn’t happen.”
This legislative session has seen at least one bill that aims to help former foster care youths go to college — House Bill 6563. The bill would allow former foster children to apply for funding for postsecondary education until age 26, up from 21. It would also allow them to keep getting funds once they’ve applied until age 28.
It would also establish a pilot program to offer more money to former foster youths who go to college. Ripke said he receives about $550 a month from the department now that he’s living off campus. When he was on campus, it was about $265 a month.
The department has additional assistance for housing and medical bills, but it’s tough to make ends meet, Ripke said.
“Yes, they support us. Yes, they provide some sort of help, but it’s not enough. It’s a very partial solution,” Ripke said.
Ripke goes to school in New York but is from Connecticut and has an open DCF case in the state. He has struggled to find an apartment on his own, now that his roommates have decided to study abroad. Many landlords didn’t want to wade through the extra paperwork or wait the additional time it takes to get the department’s housing assistance approved, Ripke said.
The bill supported by Ripke and other youth transitioning out of care passed through the Committee on Higher Education and Employment Advancement and the Committee on Children earlier in the session but did not get a vote in the Appropriations Committee.
But another bill — Senate Bill 2 — deals with a number of issues related to the well-being of children and extends public defender services for youths who are involved in the foster care system to young adults up to age 23. Public defenders help youths in the foster care system get services they’re entitled to, navigate legal documents involved with the system and counsel them on legal remedies to any problems they may face. Existing law ends those services at 18, according to bill documents.
That bill has passed the House and Senate. It next heads to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk for his signature.
Nonprofit Children in Placement is among the groups that’s working to make the transition out of care easier for foster kids.
They’ve started a mentoring program that pairs a community volunteer with a young person, often years before the child turns 18.
“Our goal is to support youths throughout all the ages, particularly for kids who are aging out,” said Shanda Easley, Willimantic/Waterford regional manager at Children in Placement. “This is a long-term mentoring program.”
Mentors talk with kids about their life goals, help them navigate job or apartment applications and give them advice. It’s a small but growing program, Easley said.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed growth, but they’re looking for more mentors, Easley added. Mentors are trained in child development, trauma and safety rules.
Janet Freimuth, executive director at the nonprofit, said she is one of the mentors and has helped her mentees with several issues including housing, figuring out what information to put on a W-2, and how to manage familial relationships.
“If they’re in a foster care home, they’ve already been abandoned in one way or another … that’s the youth that we’re looking at,” Freimuth said.
The state also has a new system that started in 2021 called the Omega Process that aims to have youths lead their care planning, Dixon said.
The idea is to gather several people involved in a youth’s care to talk about goals. The youth is supposed to co-facilitate meetings, set goals and tell their care team what support they need. Care meetings happen regularly as kids get older, Dixon said.
“It’s just an ongoing conversation, and it gets more amplified as they get closer [to transitioning out of care],” she added.
But Ripke said this wasn’t his experience. He said it was a “very structured” meeting with him, his case worker and a case reviewer.
“We want to be heard, and we want to be taken seriously, and that’s just not been our experience,” he said.
The department is also focusing its efforts on developing a program geared toward helping youth who are in detention facilities.
The legislature passed a law in 2021 to create a team to oversee these youths’ education, and it’s getting off the ground.
Glen Worthy, the team’s leader, said results aren’t evident yet because they’ve only been working for a few months. They’re talking with schools about credit recovery to get teenagers caught up for graduation and pushing for expanded vocational training, he said.
He’d like to see vocational training tied to particular companies so youths can get jobs right after graduating, he said.
“We are just talking to folks and trying to plan it all out,” he said. “That’s where we are now.”