Here’s the short list: Finish school. Find a home. Get a job. Create a support system. Think about college or vocational training. And stay out of trouble. The last item can be the toughest, as statistics show that foster youth are much more likely to be involved in drugs or unwanted pregnancies. And a mistake in any one of these areas can result in homelessness, depression or legal problems.
While you may not hear much about “aging out” of foster care—typically at age 18—it’s a big issue. With more than 400,000 youth in the foster care system across the country, according to the most recent government statistics, the system’s “graduates” are largely on their own. Which is why a joint initiative by the Junior League of the Oranges and Short Hills (JLOSH) and the Junior League of Montclair-Newark, Inc. (JLMN) providing life-skills information for soon-to-graduate foster kids is critically important.
These two Leagues serve Essex County, NJ, which has an astonishing number of children in out-of-home/foster care placement—almost 2,000, amounting to 24% of all foster children in New Jersey.
Given the dimension of the need, JLOSH initiated the first Information Fair for teenagers in foster care in Essex County four years ago, and was joined a year later by JLMN. Active partners from the start were the Child Advocacy Center Center at the Rutgers School of Law; the Essex County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and the Essex County Family Court, which oversees the cases of participating teens. Representatives of FosterClub, the national network for young people in foster care, were an important addition to this year’s event.
The Information Fair brought together 150 foster youth, their caseworkers, foster parents and court-appointed special advocates, along with 34 information exhibitors, including: career and education advice (Kaplan Test Prep, NJ Scholars Program); colleges, universities and technical schools (Kean University, Lincoln Technical Institute, Parisian Beauty Academy, Rutgers University); job opportunities/additional organizations (AmeriCorps, DYFS Child Health Unit, Babyland Family Services, the Newark Fire Department, the Port Authority of NY/NJ); and legal assistance/law guardian information.
The kids were “rewarded” for visiting the information booths by being eligible to win the raffle prize (iPods!). If an attendee visited all exhibitors then they got two raffle tickets instead of one.
The Information Fair, which saw a doubling of information exhibitors over earlier years, was run by JLOSH and JLMN. That activity was augmented by a presentation on foster youths’ legal rights as they age out of the system given by Nana Wilson, Aging Out Coordinator, from the Child Advocacy Center. And representatives of the FosterClub organized a lively role-playing program called Independence City that presented the kids with opportunities to negotiate life challenges they will face—getting a job, renting an apartment, dealing with health issues, etc.—by thinking strategically about how to solve problems.
The event’s success comes down to three important outcomes. First, offering extremely important information to foster youth before they age out of the system. Second, involving a wide range of community partners, including information exhibitors. And third, creating and implementing a program that builds upon itself and becomes more robust every year.
But, in structure, the Information Fair is a classic Junior League initiative. Identify an underserved need in the community. Create a program to address it. Enlist the support of influential community partners. And then work to enlarge the program’s impact every year.
“Aging Out Seminars provide an opportunity for youth who are leaving the child welfare system to learn about community based organizations which offer support in the areas of education, employment, finance and social assistance. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the Junior League, over thirty local organizations participated in the successful event in Essex County,” said Superior Court Judge Sallyanne Floria.
Looking ahead, the two Leagues are ambitious.
JLOSH and JLMN are working with other New Jersey Leagues to extend the program across the state. And both Leagues see the potential of “lending” the concept to Junior Leagues and other non-profits across the country. “The Information Fair fills a gap in many communities between what government agencies can do to help foster kids and conventional mentoring programs,” says Patricia Devine Harms of JLMN. “Our program is designed to be easily replicated by other organizations.” Adds Sara Agress of JLOSH, “The Information Fair format works because it provides foster kids with targeted information they can actually use in their new lives. And, because it brings in court and social worker involvement from the very beginning, it enables us to build strong community support.”