A Hand Up to Independence

Court helps older foster kids get support they need to transition to adulthoodA Hand Up to IndependenceNew Court Program Helps Foster Teens Prepare for Adulthood

By Tabitha Yang

Imagine for a moment that it’s the night of your high school graduation. You’ve donned your cap and gown, and you know that soon you will brave the bright lights and the watching crowd to walk across the stage and receive your diploma from the principal. People will cheer – but you know your family won’t be out there in the audience.

To tell the truth, they have never really been there for you. They abused you as a child, and you have been in and out of foster care homes ever since. Now that you’re 18 and high school is finished, you have “aged out” of the system and you’re on your own.

What will you do? How will you make ends meet? How will you handle finding a place of your own to live, landing a job, paying your bills? These are things that can challenge even experienced adults but, for you, there is no safety net. The chances of falling into homelessness, joblessness and criminal activity for people in your situation are pretty high.

Sadly, more than 24,000 young people throughout the United States found themselves in this situation in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and thousands more continue to do so every year.

Fortunately for foster children in North Florida, a few people have decided to do something to help teens who age out of the system.

Judge Nikki Clark, a 15-year veteran of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit who was recently appointed to the First District Court of Appeals, has worked with those involved in the foster care system to develop an “independent living docket,” reserving court time specifically for children ages 16 and older who need to be prepared for the challenges of living on their own.

Clark wanted these teens to have a better chance of succeeding once they left the system. For most of them, their backgrounds could make it even more challenging for them to grow up into emotionally, physically and mentally healthy adults.

“The situations vary greatly, and some of the stories are absolutely horrendous,” Clark said. “Some of them come from families where the parents’ parental rights have been terminated. Some of them, their parents have died. Some of them, the children have been removed for various stages of neglect and abuse.”

The independent living docket doesn’t cost the state any additional money, and it allows these youths to come to the courtroom once a month to provide an update on the progress they’re making at school and in other areas of their lives. It’s a way for the judge and case workers to make sure they’re not falling through the cracks.

“As the judge who presides over that docket, it became clear to me that we need to give these children more attention,” she said. “We don’t want them to be in a position where we say, ‘OK, you’re 18, go on and head down to the homeless shelter.’”

At the first independent living docket, held Oct. 30, 2008, Clark spoke with a young man who is a senior in high school and plans to join the military after graduation.

(He, and the other young person who appears in this article, aren’t being fully identified due to privacy concerns.) Clark asked him questions about what was going on in his life, both inside and outside of school.

“Have you registered to vote yet?” she asked. He hadn’t.

“That’s one of your responsibilities as an adult,” she told him. “To make sure you exercise your right to vote.”

The teen’s case manager told the judge he was working and going to school, and making good progress.

Clark looked the young man in the eyes and told him, “I’m proud of you.”

He had something to say to the judge in private, so he was given permission to whisper something in her ear.

These types of exchanges were more hurried and less thorough under the previous system, in which foster kids of all ages would be placed together in one mass docket and each child would have only a few short moments to speak with the judge.

“Typically these cases are part of a larger docket, and the judge really doesn’t have the time, or any of the parties, to truly communicate with the youth and independent parties,” said Marilyn Krantz, director of Children’s Legal Services for the Northwest Florida region. “So what does this (independent living docket) accomplish? It provides more time for them.”

When the kids were part of the mass docket, Clark would talk to them one-on-one, “but when you’ve got 40 or 50 cases, young people are going to be less inclined to talk to you about their personal issues,” she said. “When it’s a smaller docket, they feel more encouraged (to do) this.”

Following Clark’s appointment to the First District Court of Appeals in January, she is no longer presiding over the Independent Living Docket, but the docket remains a testimony to her commitment to improve the lives of foster children in Florida. Magistrate Tom Lager is filling in for her until a new circuit judge is appointed.
Clark and others concerned about foster care kids started meeting to plan out the independent living docket in 2008 after returning from a dependency summit in Orlando.

“On an annual basis, (the Florida Department of Children and Families) and dependency judges get together and have workshops. We have various meetings to say what works and what doesn’t work,” said Pat Smith, regional spokeswoman for the department. “From those discussions, now we have this independent living docket, because they felt (foster kids’) voices were not being heard.”

Now, these foster children have the opportunity to speak more freely with the judge. The docket – and the children’s case managers – help them prepare for life on their own.

“A lot of it is coaching these children through things that the rest of us had our parents to help us do,” said Children’s Home Society Executive Director David Overstreet. “It’s great that not only these case workers are there for the kids, but also the judge.”

Clark and the case workers have spent time encouraging these kids to open a bank account, register to vote, design and stick with a budget, apply to colleges and the million and one other “becoming-a-responsible-adult” things your parents taught you how to do.

Many of the children have a lot of respect for Clark.

“I like her a lot,” said 17-year-old Arianne. “She’s become part of the family. She knows everything about me.”

Arianne, a thin, short-haired brunette who has been in and out of foster care for the past 13 years due to a bad family situation, said she has gone through some rough patches in her life.

“The last four years just weren’t very good for me, so I just kind of gave up on everything,” she said.

Arianne now attends the PACE Center for Girls, and she said it’s a good place for her to be.

“It’s more of a ‘you can do it’ place,” she said. “I’m being pushed not to fail classes. I’m working on not failing classes.”

These days, Arianne’s life goals include either joining the Coast Guard or going to college and getting a degree in journalism. She looks at the prospect of turning 18 and being on her own with a mix of fear and excitement.

“It’s scary,” Arianne said, “but at the same time, it makes me feel like I can do something with myself.”

If she could give any advice to other foster kids, it would be this: “Just hold on – it’ll all get better soon. It’s not as hard as it sounds.”

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