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How this advocate is helping older foster kids improve a system that failed them

Dominique Mikell. November 7, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
The primary goal of foster care is to place youth with permanent families. The need to extend foster care to youth over age 18 means that goal is being missed.

Annually, approximately 26,000 foster youth across the country “age out” of foster care once they become legal adults. Over one-fifth end up homeless. One fourth get pulled into the justice system within two years of aging out.

In 2015, 275 youth aged out of Philadelphia’s foster care system. Department of Human Services approximates the city is on track to hit that number again in 2016.

Dominique Mikell, a policy researcher and Stoneleigh Foundation fellow with Juvenile Law Center, sees that as 275 broken promises.

“It’s not acceptable that youth we took responsibility for raising end up being homeless in adulthood or incarcerated so soon after they leave care,” said Mikell. “We didn’t honor the commitment we made in some ways.”

Mikell was a research assistant for the California Youth Transition to Adulthood (CalYOUTH) Study, an initiative that has had a seminal role in moving extended foster care policy forward across the country. She’ll be looking to something similar with JLC in Pennsylvania, which, like California, also has a county-administered foster care system.

Pennsylvania passed legislation extending foster care benefits to youth up to age 21 by tapping into federal funds in 2012.

And, like California, Pennsylvania passed legislation extending foster care benefits to youth up to age 21 by tapping into federal funds in 2012. Still, there are still a lot of kinks to work out.

“You can’t just enact a law that says ‘OK, three more years then we’re done,'” said Jennifer Pokempner, JLC’s child welfare policy director. “We have to think about what we’re providing in those three years.”

That starts with the recognition that emotional and cognitive development doesn’t end at age 18. Your typical 18-year-old American might have a familial support network to see that development through, said Mikell, but growth after 18 is different when your legal guardian is a government system that’s still trying to figure out what you need.

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“I don’t think that it’s asking a lot to make sure we create services that actually meet the needs they have,” said Mikell. “It’s something that we can do. It’s something we haven’t been doing well. But there are a lot of people who want to do this well.”

While “everyone talks about youth voice,” said Pokempner, we’re “not at a place where our systems are really listening” to them. That will be Mikell’s job — informing data-driven policy with youth testimony. You can’t know what youth in the system need until you ask.

“Young people really need a seat at this table,” she said. “How do we make sure this young person will have someone supportive they can call up and get emotional and tangible support? Hopefully, from this project, we can learn from young people whether or not we’re doing a good job with that.”

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