Helping Teens Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood

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When Angel Patten was 13, her family was homeless, moving from one relative’s home to another. Then her mother decided she could no longer care for her eldest child.

Deborah Moore, director of the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian Ad Litem Program and Brian Williams.

gal2.org/David July

“She dropped me at the Wakulla courthouse and told them she wanted to surrender her rights as a mother,” said Patten, who has a younger brother.

By the time she was 17, Patten had lived in at least 20 shelters or foster homes and attended numerous schools.

“As a foster kid, you always bounce around,” she said. “The longest I lived in a home was nine months and the shortest was two weeks. You hope they find you a place in town because the scariest thought is that you’re going out of town where you don’t have any resources and don’t know anyone.”

Patten, now a poised 19-year-old, was fortunate to have a trusted resource in case worker, Dian Lyn, who became her mentor.

“I believe that children can survive and recover from anything if there is at least one strong adult advocate in their lives that they can believe in and trust,” said Lyn, now medical foster care coordinator for Children’s Medical Services in Tallahassee. “I wanted to be that person for Angel.”

 “I would not be where I am without her,” said Patten.

And here’s where she is now: Patten attends Tallahassee Community College, where she’s one of the success stories in the school’s Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program. In the summer of 2014, she was sent to Washington, D.C., to shadow U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho. And she volunteers at classes for future foster parents “to give them a perspective of what foster kids are going through.”

Despite her struggles, Patten said she “was very determined to overcome the obstacles in my life.” 

The obstacles facing youths who have been in the foster care system are staggering. Many have experienced physical, mental or sexual abuse, homelessness, drug dependency or abandonment.

Until recently, teens would “age out” of the system on their 18th birthday, meaning they were suddenly on their own, with no financial or emotional support.

“It had to be frightening,” said State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who championed legislation, effective Jan. 1, 2014, that allows young people to remain in foster care until age 21. 

While some teens are eager to leave the state foster care system, others aren’t ready. Many are still in high school at age 18. 

“We don’t put our own children out on the street on their 18th birthday, and they’ve had some security,” said Detert, a longtime advocate for foster care youths. “These kids have had to live with a lot of turmoil and problems. They were ending up in jail, homeless, becoming victims of crime or becoming criminals themselves.”

Under the updated legislation, even young people who opt out of foster care can return, as many times as they want, until age 21.

There are also programs offering tuition waivers and monthly stipends, with certain regulations. The state’s new Postsecondary Education Services and Support (PESS) program is designed to keep young people on track to attend either college or a vocational school on a full-time basis and is available until a student’s 23rd birthday. 

Advisers encourage all students who have been touched by the foster care system to check on their eligibility. They might get help from another tuition waiver program for students up to age 28 at a public college or vocational program.

Despite additional resources, it’s still not easy for young people to make the transition from foster care to independence.

 “Having a caring adult in their life is the single greatest thing we can give them when they age out of the system,” said Matt McKibbin, Circuit 2 Well-Being Specialist for Big Bend Community Based Care, the lead managing foster-care agency in Northwest Florida. “It can be someone from a church, a guardian ad litem, case worker, tutor or mentor — someone who will pick up a phone and talk to them.

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