How Can We Help Former Foster Youth Succeed? Ask Them.
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Samanthya Amann and Brittany Hunter are foster care alums and young fellows with the Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. As fellows, both women advise Casey’s efforts to improve the lives of young people moving from foster care to adulthood.
This summer, Amann earned a graduate degree in public administration from Drake University in Iowa. Hunter is currently studying civil engineering at Arizona State University.
It’s incredibly important to be innovative and to meet us where we’re at. The solutions that work today might not be what people in care need in five years. So, please continue to listen to us and give us a seat at the table.
Every year in America, nearly 24,000 young adults age out of foster care.
The transition isn’t an easy one. Many youth are thrust into independence at age 18 — and into a world rife with instability, where the risk of unemployment and homelessness is high and shoulders of support are sometimes nonexistent.
Samanthya Amann and Brittany Hunter experienced this uphill climb firsthand. Today, both women serve as Jim Casey young fellows, where they help guide the Foundation’s work supporting youth exiting care.
Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to Amann and Hunter about their personal paths out of foster care. Both fellows talked about the barriers they faced, what strategies and supports they used, and what a smoother exit from the system could look like.
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Lisa Hamilton: I'm fortune that I get to spend my days talking with experts in and outside of the Casey Foundation, learning about the challenges kids and families face and possible solutions to these issues. In fact, on this podcast I've had the opportunity to share conversations with innovative thinkers and experienced leaders working to reform child welfare, juvenile justice systems, and more. Today, however, I'm delighted to bring you a different but equally important group of experts. We get to talk with two young people who've been in foster care who have experiences and ideas sure to inspire change for those who follow them.
It's my pleasure to welcome Samanthya Amann and Brittany Hunter to the podcast. Our guests are young fellows with the foundation's Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. As fellows, these young people work as advocates in policy areas that are important to them. In addition, they advise the foundation in its efforts to improve the lives of youths transitioning from foster care into adulthood. Welcome Samanthya and Brittany. Let's start off with introductions. Samanthya, why don't you tell us a bit about yourself?
Samanthya Amann: Thank you so much, Lisa. I'm so delighted to be here. My name is Samanthya Amann. I'm a young fellow from Iowa, and I've been working with the initiative since 2011. I recently graduated from Drake University with my master's in public administration in May.
Brittany Hunter: My name is Brittany Hunter. Thank you so much for having us. I am currently right now a student at Arizona State University studying civil engineering. I have been with the foundation now going on five years, and I am part of the Fostering Advocates Arizona Young Adult board.
Lisa Hamilton: Thanks to both of you for joining me. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative seeks to improve the lives of young people who are moving into adulthood from foster care. You both are making tremendously impressive transitions yourselves, but we know that young people can face many barriers when they're making this transition. Samanthya, could you tell us a bit about some of the barriers you've seen young people face?
Samanthya Amann: Young people transitioning from care need safe and stable housing and access to their own transportation. Research shows us what we already know, young people, regardless of their foster care status, are not ready to be on their own at age 18. The numbers show that as well. We know that 1 in 5 young people transitioning from care will be homeless after their 18th birthday, and more than half will be unemployed by the time that they're 24. Not only is there an initial impact on young people transitioning, but it's a long-term impact as well.
One of the main issues that I think leads to these poor outcomes is young people, when they're not ready to be out on their own, they don't have necessities like their own transportation. With their own transportation, a young person can get to and from work, to and from school, the doctor's office, and even to the grocery store. They're able to be more self-sufficient and rely on themselves.
Learning to drive is a rite of passage for most young people. I say most because a lot of my peers in foster care didn't even have their license by age 18. A lot of barriers to getting your license as a young person, when you think about who you first learned to drive with it's usually your mom or dad. We don't have those roles when we're in foster care. We don't have a lot of times somebody to call Mom or Dad, and there's a lot of fear for young people to be put on their foster parents' insurance. There's a lot of fear on the side of the foster parents as well, when you think about having to have that responsibility of caring to that capacity for somebody that's not your birth child.
Even if they were to get their license, another barrier that I think a lot of people don't think about is the fact that we don't have a permanent address past age 18. You don't have an address to put on your driver's license. You don't have an address to file your car insurance under, which leads me to my second most important asset I think all young people need to transition, and that's safe and stable housing.
There are a lot of programs that foster youth that are exiting care have access to, like section 8 housing, but a lot of times there's really long waits, it's a confusing process, and quite frankly young people do not want to be on another public program. We want to be self-sufficient, and we need opportunities to be. And, like I said before, because young people are transitioning they often don't have the same supports as our peers that aren't in foster care. We don't have the parents and the family members to help us figure out what a safe, good apartment might look like or a house. We don't have somebody to walk us through that process. We don't have that financial safety net or even a cosigner. We usually don't have good credit or sufficient credit to get on a good apartment lease.
Lisa Hamilton: You raised a lot great issues: transportation, housing, the skills, driver’s license, and even support of adults to help you navigate all those different decisions that you need to face. Thank you for that. Brittany, anything you want to add to that?
Brittany Hunter: It's challenging aging out of foster care when you also have a child to provide for. One significant challenge is having childcare. In order for me to go to school and work towards my degree and my goals to better my future for myself and my daughter, I need to have a safe place for her to go. As young adults, we want to be successful. We want to earn a degree, and we want to have a career. However, going about the process when you have a child is hard, and I know we need support. I found myself in a position where my income was the same amount as what my childcare expenses were. I had to quit my job because I could not afford to keep taking my daughter to daycare.
Lisa Hamilton: Samanthya and Brittany, you have raised some really important issues. What kinds of solutions have you seen? Maybe we'll start with you, Samanthya.
Samanthya Amann: I think another underlying barrier to getting access to safe and stable housing and transportation is poor credit. Having low or no credit has the potential to block young people from securing their housing, purchasing their transportation, and even approval for credit cards that can be that financial safety net that young people need when they have no one else. I think it would be amazing to partner with housing initiatives and policy makers to allow former foster youth to secure housing by waving the minimum credit requirement that most places require. Perhaps we can even create an insurance program to support foster parents as they support young people learning to drive, to kind of ease that financial burden or altogether create a different system where young people could be on a state insurance rather than on their foster parents. That way, if they do move to a different home environment or they do exit care, the can take their insurance with them and that's not an additional barrier.
Lisa Hamilton: What about you, Brittany? You raised the childcare question. Any ideas on what we can do to help reduce that challenge for young people?
Brittany Hunter: One way I feel we can support young parents is to provide childcare stipends along with their independent living stipends. Childcare is expensive. I pay on average $800 a month. Therefore, the stipends will allow young adults who want to be successful to go to school or work without worrying about having safe, reliable childcare as well as having extra money in their pocket for other expenses. Another solution I see is that the community needs to come together and organize an online database or portal of some sort of all the different resources available for young parents aging out of care. Knowing what resources are out there is the key to helping young parents.
Lisa Hamilton: I'm curious how you have both found out what kinds of resources are available. As you were aging out of care, were there social workers in the system that gave you some place to start? How were you all able to navigate a complex set of options that might be other there for you?
Samanthya Amann: The community that I come from, I had foster parents that I was living with and even foster parents that I was no longer living with who were still really involved in my life. When I was 14 years old, in Iowa you can get your permit at age 14, they put me on their insurance. That was a choice that they made. Some other supportive adults in my life were my self-sufficiency advocates. In Iowa, we have the aftercare program which is like a lot of programs where there is an extension of foster care. Instead of a social worker, we have a self-sufficiency advocate. She was making sure that I had access to housing, and we would kind of get over those barriers. We worked to build up my credit together, but I think the most important thing is even though we all need to be connected to one adult by age 25, it's so important to have that community of multiple adults coming together. It doesn't just take one adult. It does take a village to help us be successful.
Lisa Hamilton: What about you, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: It was through my community where I found out about the resources. I found out the Earn While You Learn program, which is a program for the first year of your child development. You learn about anything from hygiene to how do I discipline a child to how do we read books and learn speech. I was introduced to that program from an academic advisor at school. Just having my community there to point me in a direction when I'm at a point where I need a direction, that's always been my strongest connection within my community.
Lisa Hamilton: Have you all had the benefit of peers who told you about things? It's certainly great to have adults who can help you navigate, but I would suspect you've got connections to friends, or through the Jim Casey opportunity that may have told you about programs or resources you could explore, too. What role has peers played in helping you navigate?
Samanthya Amann: When I moved to Des Moines from Ames, where I aged out of foster care, I didn't have that peer support system. It's definitely built up through my involvement with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. Now I have a network of friends all throughout the United States, and we even have a Facebook page where we can reach out to each other and be like, "Hey, I am experiencing this road block or I don't know what to do next semester for financial aid." Then we can just all pour in and give our expertise. It's really cool. It's especially cool because growing up I didn't have that peer support. I didn't make a lot of friends moving from home to home. Now I have that, and it's really cool to have that two-way relationship where I can invest in my new friends as much as they invest in me. That's one of my favorite things about being a young fellow.
Lisa Hamilton: How about you, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: I agree with Samanthya. The peer support system around the nation is big when it comes to if I have a problem. In my site, in Arizona, I can call a site in Iowa and say, "Hey, what resources do you have out there that I could bring to Arizona?" That's one big thing is having that peer support from other people who have experienced somewhat similar situations.
Lisa Hamilton: One of the policy issues that I know the Jim Casey Initiative has worked on has been about extending foster care. Most young people age out of foster care at age 18, but there's been a movement around the country to get foster care extended to age 21. I'm wondering if you know others who have taken advantage of that and what role you think that extension of foster care plays in helping young people have a successful transition?
Samanthya Amann: I think extension of foster care is so crucial to reversing these poor outcomes and making sure that every young person has the opportunity to be successful. As I mentioned earlier Iowa has, it's not called extended care, but it is similar to that. It has been so important to getting me into school, to getting me the transportation, the secure housing, and even lead to the permanency that I found through my adoption in college. I think having that special support is so important. When we know that young people aren't ready by 18 and half of young people aren't even graduated by age 19 if they're in foster care, we really need that extra time to not just jump off the cliff into adulthood.
Lisa Hamilton: Could you even say a little bit about how foster care needs to look different for young people who are older than 18, if you do take advantage of extended care? You don't need the same kinds of supports and services that you do when you're under 18. Either one of you want to talk a bit about how you think foster care even needs to be different for older youth?
Samanthya Amann: Absolutely. This is one of my favorite passions. With the extension of care, in order to do it well, we need to make sure that we treat the young people that are accessing additional services as adults. We are adults at age 18, and we need to be treated like that. Under 18, a lot of the focus is around safety and permanence, but after 18 it's making sure that we are ready to be adults and stable on our own. One of my favorite things about the aftercare program in Iowa is that the social workers are no longer called social workers. They're called self-sufficiency advocates. Even having that different language really changes the dynamic of the relationship.
It needs to be voluntary, and it needs to be accessible for young people that want to maybe leave and then come back and reenter the program. That way it can meet us where we're at in the transition. It's really tough, especially when you've been in foster care for quite a while, to want to just jump into another program and be tied down. Some people are like, "No, I don't want to be part of the system anymore." Then they realize they really do need help in the transition. It also needs to be individualized. What I need and what I see as the major barriers as I transitioned are not the same as Brittany and not the same as a lot of our peers. We do know that we need the same basic needs, so just working one on one with us, listening to us, meeting our needs where we're at, and then making sure that we're leading the process. Those are all very important, I think.
Lisa Hamilton: Want to add anything, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: She basically took the words out of my mouth, especially when it comes to wanting to reenter the system. Say you're 18, you want to take a big leap and do it on your own, and then you realize that probably wasn't the best decision. You realize maybe that support system is what you should have done. Reentering care should not be challenging, if they want to reenter.
Lisa Hamilton: That's great advice, thank you. Are there any other ways that we can help young people be financially stable as they make the transition to adulthood? Samanthya, you talked a bit about credit, but are there other strategies that can help young people be financially stable?
Samanthya Amann: The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and its sites across the country have a program called the Opportunity Passport Program. A huge component of that program is financial capability, and that's one of the main goals for all young people in order to be successful. I think one thing that has just been really helpful in my transition is understanding how I relate to money, the emotional tie to money. There is a curriculum called Money Habitudes that I know we're starting to implement in Iowa at our site. It helps the young person, and it's for all ages, understand how they process how they use money. It shows them that there's an emotional tie to money and to purchasing objects.
With that and the financial literacy that I've received through my involvement with the Opportunity Passport Program was really where I learned more about myself, but it also helped me create goals for myself and think both short term and long term and the impact of my current situation and where I wanted to be down the road. I think budgeting is so important. My favorite thing about the Opportunity Passport Program is that you continuously learn throughout your time in the program. It's for young people from age 14 to age 26. What I match for and what I budget for at age 14 is not the same thing as what I match for and budget for at age 26. I think it's so important that we are meeting young people where they're at, especially even with simple life skills like budgeting.
Lisa Hamilton: All of our listeners might not even be familiar with the match savings account. Could either of you just explain how the program works?
Brittany Hunter: The Opportunity Passport Program is a match savings program. For every dollar that you save, Jim Casey will match a dollar. If I were to save $500 for a down payment on a new car, Jim Casey will match that $500. Therefore, $1,000 would be a down payment. Therefore, making my payments cheaper, and will drive off the lot with a new car. You could also buy assets such as a computer for school, such as paid tuition. Right now, I'm currently paying off debts that I encountered when I was 18 aging out of foster care, not having that support system, not having that financial literacy. Got in debt, and here I am 25 fixing it with my Opportunity Passport match savings program.
Lisa Hamilton: That's great. Samanthya talked a bit about some of the ways she needed to strengthen her knowledge of financial budgeting. With you being a mom, are there other strategies that you think could be helpful for young parents or for young people aging out of foster care that could help with their financial stability?
Brittany Hunter: When there is, a child involved, the budget is way different. There is not just food for you that you have to worry about, there's also food for your child you have to worry about. You have to worry about housing, transportation. Having financial literacy of how am I going to make it the whole month on top of paying for childcare, that's very difficult. Once again, if there are stipends in place that can take care of the childcare, the rest of the money that goes for the rent and that goes for food and lights will go to that. However, there can also be extra money that can go for other opportunities such as maybe being able to save for a home to purchase in the future. Instead of paying $800 a month on daycare, I could save $800 a month and hopefully get into a brand-new home in the next year, if we can get those childcare stipends.
Lisa Hamilton: Does Arizona have the kind of financial literacy training that Samanthya was talking about in Iowa?
Brittany Hunter: Yes, we do have the Opportunity Passport Program on our site as well. All the curriculums that are offered we receive, from transportation to learning how to pick out a car, learning how to apply for a credit card, even down to applying for student loans and knowing what you're jumping into instead of jumping in there and then at the end of the day you know you're well over your head and in debt.
Lisa Hamilton: Thanks for letting us know that. I'd like to pick up one of the threads that you all talked about earlier, about the role of mentors and adults in your lives. Could you talk a bit about the role mentors or other supportive adults have played in your lives and how you build those relationships and how we could increase the numbers of adults who are helping you make successful transitions?
Samanthya Amann: Adults play such a crucial role in making sure that all young people who transition from foster care are successful. There's three ways that I think of right off the bat. When they connect with us, when they get creative with us, and when they keep listening to us is when we are the most successful. What neuroscience shows us is that all young people need to be connected by age 25 to at least one caring adult. We all need someone we can go to when we have just the simplest question. I cannot tell you how many times I call my mom to ask her how long I'm supposed to heat something up in the microwave. We just need someone that we can turn to when we have questions about budgeting or my car won't start, I don't know what to do. We just need that one person.
For those that work with us when you're transitioning from care, I think it's incredibly important to be innovative and to meet us where we're at. The solutions that work today, the ones that we're brainstorming, might not be what young people in care transitioning need in five years. Please continue to listen to us and have us at the table and listen to the young people in your sites. Iowa is very different from Arizona, and our needs are going to be different.
Lisa Hamilton: How about you, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: Young adults just need to come together and have this common ground of what they want to do with the system instead of having someone on this side of the town and this side of the town having two different programs. Come together. Make one program. Get it organized so that when problems arise we already have the solutions on the table, instead of having to go out there and find them. More importantly, like Samanthya said, just listen to what we want. We obviously know where we want to go in life. We just need maybe a little extra help getting there.
Lisa Hamilton: I know that the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative works with its young fellows to become advocates for other youth, and you are often the critical voices that change laws in the states where you live. How are you using your voice as advocates?
Samanthya Amann: One of my favorite things to do is to advocate. It's so cool to see five years later from when I first became a young fellow and the stuff that we advocated for is actually happening. Like the Success Beyond 18 campaign, where we pushed states to extend foster care to at least 21. It's been so cool to see even the barriers that I faced when I was in care are no longer barriers because we have these good solutions. That's what makes this all worth it.
Lisa Hamilton: That's awesome. How about you, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: For my issue of being young parents, we are not just talking about young mothers, but we are also talking about young fathers who are doing whatever it takes to provide a better life for their child. I am passionate about this issue because I found myself in the predicament where I had to leave my job and stop school because I could not afford childcare. I know this is devastating. Having reliable childcare shouldn't hinder anyone from achieving their dreams. Therefore, advocating for safe and reliable childcare for young adults aging out of the system is crucial. With my community supporting me, imagine the possibilities.
Lisa Hamilton: I know that the majority of our podcast audience is adults, but I'm hopeful that there are a few young teens in foster care who might be listening. I wonder what advice both of you would give them to prepare them for life after foster care?
Samanthya Amann: Emerging adulthood is such a sweet time because it's an opportunity where you can access a lot of the programs in your sites. You might not feel like you want to even talk to another adult for a long time, but you're going to really appreciate it down the road. The time is going to go by so fast. Just remember you're not going to carry your label of being a foster kid with you forever. Emerging adulthood is also the most important time to figure out who you are. It's just going to be awesome.
Lisa Hamilton:How about you, Brittany?
Brittany Hunter: My advice would just be keep pushing. Every day wake up with a new goal, a new outlook on life. You make your story, no one else does.
Lisa Hamilton: Thank you so much Brittany and Samanthya for joining us. I want to thank our listeners for joining us as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, rate our podcast on iTunes to help others find us. To learn more about our podcasts and find notes for today's show, visit us online at www.aecf.org/podcast and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter at @aecfnews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you a bright future.