Almost half of all foster care youth end up in jail within two years of aging out of the system. First Place for Youth has figured out a housing and support strategy to keep these young adults out from behind bars and living on their own.
Moments of stability were rare during Pamela Bolnick’s childhood. She repeatedly witnessed her father beat her mother, a Venezuelan immigrant diagnosed with schizophrenia. Bolnick’s mom eventually left her abusive spouse, fleeing to the Bay Area with her two kids. When she stopped taking her medication, the county child welfare department stepped in and placed six-year-old Bolnick and her younger brother in foster care. Her mother resumed treatment for her mental illness, and for two short years, retained custody of her children. After another relapse, Bolnick and her sibling were permanently removed from their home.
Bolnick was placed with her godparents in Richmond, Calif., an East Bay city then known for its notoriously high murder rates. Toughened by her childhood, she excelled at El Cerrito High School, impressing teachers in her Advanced Placement classes and filling her schedule with softball games and dance rehearsals. By senior year, however, she felt her foster family was pressuring her to move on. “All this time, I looked at them as being my own family. I did everything that you’d expect of a child, going to school, not getting into trouble, applying to college,” Bolnick says. “I came to see it as a business transaction: them being paid [by the government] for taking care of me, and me getting the benefit of being a child in their custody.” Disgusted, she left and spent the summer living at friend’s house. Shortly afterwards, she enrolled at Holy Names University in nearby Oakland Hills.
Alone for the first time, juggling 19 credits of core classes and a full-time job overwhelmed Bolnick. Short on time and seared by her past relationships, she distanced herself from others. “I almost grew to believe that I could be this Superwoman figure,” she recalls. “It burned me out completely. I didn’t have time to enjoy my first year of college, a time that’s supposed to be so liberating. I had finally reached the only thing my mother wanted me to do, and it made me so sad knowing I wasn’t happy.” Bolnick dropped out. Her foster parents refused to take her back, and without a permanent place to go, she couch-surfed at friends’ dorms.
The foster care system is one of America’s most troublesome institutions: chronically underfunded and largely uninformed and unsuccessful at raising children much better than the parents from whom they were removed. Its primary recipients — children under the age of 18 — have no political leverage, so policy decisions are often driven by scandals. In New York City, for example, after a mother killed her daughter in 1995, thousands of kids were forcefully removed from their homes, but when troubles beset the administration in 2005, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. While the system as a whole has experienced some reforms (motivated by Victorian sensationalism, as Jill Lepore documents in The New Yorker), a subset of its population gets little attention: those who “age out” of the system.
Each year in California, several thousand youth exit foster care immediately upon turning 21 years old. (Previously emancipated at 18, youth care was extended by a 2012 state law.) Longitudinal studies by researchers from University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children found that 24 percent of youth were homeless after exiting the system and nearly half had been incarcerated within two years. Perhaps most shockingly, 77 percent of the young women reported a pregnancy, risking another generation reentering the system.
While other children can mature gradually, relying on their parents for emotional advice or a bit of extra cash, these youth are entirely on their own. Amy Lemley, a former case manager at a group home for foster youth in Boston, remembers teenagers celebrating their 18th birthdays by stuffing their few belongings into a backpack and saying goodbye. “We kind of looked the other way and pretended that it was going to work out, but we knew that it wasn’t,” she says. Recognizing that these kids needed help transitioning into adulthood, Lemley enrolled in a public policy graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, and with her classmate and “kindred spirit” Deanne Pearn, the women founded an organization in 1999 to provide that support.
Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., First Place for Youth provides emancipated youth in five Bay Area counties and Los Angeles with their very first apartment, covering both the security deposit and the monthly rental fees. Last year, 464 youth moved into these residences. Most stay in the program for around 18 months; some kids drop in for 30 days, while others stay for three years, current First Place for Youth CEO Sam Cobbs says. Before exiting, the organization assists the young adults meet four main goals: find stable employment, locate housing that matches their income, complete two semesters of community college or a certificate program and, finally, achieve “healthy living,” which means avoiding arrests, unintended pregnancies and substance abuse.