Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Emancipation can mean homelessness

Bridge to adulthood program helps with transition out of foster care
Balassone, Merrill. Modesto Bee, Dec. 31, 2006, pg. B1.

Four days before her 18th birthday, Lorita Brewer got the letter she'd been dreading.
It told Brewer she had been "emancipated" from the foster care system.
So Brewer packed up her clothes and her high school awards and began sleeping in the back seat of her Buick on the streets of Oakland.

Brewer had been in foster care since age 3, bouncing back and forth between group homes and her grandmother's house. Many of her 11 brothers and sisters also were in the system.

As a "graduate" of the foster care system in Alameda, Brewer was given a care package of Farberware pans and a toaster. They went into the trunk of her rusty white car until Brewer started giving them away as Christmas gifts.

By 19, Brewer was pregnant and working four part-time jobs. She slept in her security guard uniform to keep from being robbed at night. Still, Brewer was held at gunpoint and robbed of some of her few possessions.

In California, one-third of foster children who "age out" of the system are homeless within a year of leaving state custody, according to the National Center for Youth Law.

Stanislaus County is one of five counties statewide that have joined a funded reform initiative called California Connected by 25.

The initiative was launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and funds programs to ease the transition of "aging out" by connecting foster kids to support systems for education, employment, housing and banking by age 25.

"When they turned 18, many of them were told to pack their bags and leave the house that day," said Virginia Wilson, who manages the adoption program for the Community Services Agency. "The system wasn't working for those kids. If they do go out on their own, they need someone to call to say 'I got a job' or have somewhere to go for a holiday dinner."

The grant money helped expand the county's independent living program to foster youth up to age 22. It helped Brewer, 21, pay her rent after she aged out. She also got financial incentives for getting good grades when she began attending Modesto Junior College.

This week, former foster kids will gather at the county Office of Education for the first "Foster Youth Institute," which will teach skills such as interviewing and "dressing for success."
Foster kids soon will be able to open bank accounts to pay for cars, school and housing and can get as much as $1,000 in matching funds.

Over the summer, the county began a semester-long program of intensive classes at MJC called the Bridge Program for former foster youth and other disadvantaged students. About 10 former foster kids have graduated from the program,Wilson said.

An MJC counselor and social worker are present at classes, and the students have access to tutoring and career advice, Wilson said.

It's also free to the students.

Jeremiah Cutajar, 20, is taking classes at MJC through the program.

Cutajar was 12 when police found him walking the streets of Salida. He was moved to 15 foster homes -- from Modesto to Stockton to Delhi -- during his teenage years. That meant several different classrooms and teachers in the course of a single year.

In June, Cutajar will earn a diploma from Elliott Alternative Education Center.

When he turns 21, the last of Cutajar's foster care services, including health insurance through Medi-Cal, will end. He earns money working at a clothing store restocking shirts and cleaning up until 2 a.m. Cutajar lives with his uncle and is preparing to take on the responsibility of adulthood.

"I just gotta get on my feet," he said. "There's a lot more in place now than when I aged out. Everything is there for you."

Money from the initiative helps buy bus passes, gas and child care services for foster kids such as Brewer.

Brewer graduated from Oakland Technical High School at 16 and is studying criminal justice full time at MJC. She hopes to come away from the youth institute with a full-time job as a receptionist to help pay her bills.

Brewer said she feels like she's finally getting some of the help she needed three years ago.
She lives with her 1-year-old daughter, Sah'Rai Dixon, in a two- bedroom house that sits in the shadow of the E.&J. Gallo Winery. Brewer has little furniture except for a mattress in her bedroom and the pink Hello Kitty bedroom set she bought for her daughter.

But it's the first time Brewer has been able to sink her roots in a single place.

"It's the best thing I've ever had," she said of the house she's been renting for a year. "It's like payback for all the pain and suffering."

The Foster Youth Institute is Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon each day. For more information, call Sally Cofer- Lindberg at 525-5121.

* 510: Average number of kids in foster care because of abuse or neglect in Stanislaus County
* 110: Number of adoptions finalized in the county each year
* 50: Percent of California foster kids who are unemployed within two to four years of leaving state custody
* 40: Percent of former foster youth in California who are on public assistance
Sources: Stanislaus County Community Services Agency; National Center for Youth Law

Caption: Lorita Brewer, 21, in her Modesto home, says she's getting the she needed after emancipation from foster care at 18. Brewer with her daughter Sah'Rai Dixon. Brewer is a criminal justice student at Modesto Junior College.