PRC May 12-18, 2002
Hilton Washington and Towers, Washington DC
When Seletia Venable was 13 yrs old, she saw a commercial on TV about foster care. It gave her an idea. She looked up social services in the phone book, called them up, and asked for placement. She needed to get out of a bad situation. Now, nine years later, Seletia's on her own. She is one of about 20,000 foster kids around the country who leave the system each year. Once youth reach a certain age, the state no longer takes responsibility for their care. There are independent living programs to help prepare foster youth for that transition. Three years ago, Congress gave new money for these historically underfunded programs, but there's a still a long way to go. Next Generation's Nadia Sarkis reports that for the kids, it's also a long road. PIECE
Seletia Venable is 22 years old. She was in foster care until she was 18. For the next three years, she was part of an Independent Living program in Baltimore called New Pathways. She finished that program and went out on her own last year. Seletia is pictured in the New Pathways' brochure as their success story. Her long hair is down in braids. She smiles slightly. She may be a success in New Pathways' eyes, but that doesn't mean things still aren't hard for her. A lot of people would be like I would love to live on my own, but its hard - I think I would rather be somewhere like a family setting. I think I'm ready for independence but to a certain extent. New Pathways helped prepare Seletia for independence through its training and mentorship program. The program provides apartments for about sixty youth as well as classes that teach basic living skills -counselors teach things like how to open a bank account or do the laundry. New Pathways director, Kevin Keegan, frequently visits the programs' three apartment complexes. The apartments are in stable, tidy communities - the kinds of places where the neighbors complain if your music is playing too loud. (sound of walking into complex)
We have 17 apartments in this building spread throughout the complex. We try not to keep them on top of each other, bc we don't want people really as a group home - we want people on their own… Keegan shows off one apartment. It's used as a classroom, but also as a model to show the students how a home should look. There is a table set with placemats, plates with napkins folded, as if there were plans for a dinner party. The space is neat and clean. Probably the biggest thing for us is kids coming out of foster homes and group homes that have no idea what independence is - no idea how to cook, no idea how to do clothes, no idea how to keep a place, no idea how to have good relationships with neighbors…so there's a lot of immediate things we need to address as far as teaching them how to do those basic things. Foster youth put out of the system at the age of 21, or in some states at 18, can have a lot of problems. Many haven't graduated from high school. Some are parents. A large percentage experience homelessness at one time or another. Many are unemployed, have problems with substance abuse, or find themselves in and out of jail. Seletia has never been homeless. She says foster care rescued her from an abusive grandmother. But she has had problems with drugs. And she is currently struggling to find steady employment. Seletia is certified as a nursing assistant, and works in elder care. She isn't on staff anywhere, but does on call work through a nursing agency. Seletia thinks that if she had more education, finding a good job wouldn't be so hard. High school was a struggle for her to complete, and so while she was at New Pathways, she decided not to continue on to get a degree. That's something she now regrets. I would spend the night in school if I could again. I'm telling you that if the tables were turned, I would be in school, I would live in school. Bc its going to help you. When you got a degree you can get any job you want and you probably will be more successful, you'll be more ready. This summer Congress will decide whether to give 60 million dollars to states in order to strengthen the educational opportunities available for former foster youth. This would add to the 140 million dollars a year Congress already allots to Independent Living Programs. But however efficient or exhaustive independent living programs become, Seletia can't have what she really wants- a family. Seletia's mother was murdered when she was 13 years old. Her father is deceased as well, and she never lived with him. Her only brother is in jail for murder. Seletia still sees her grandmother from time to time, but the older woman is an alcoholic. There are certain holidays I don't like. I don't like mother's day, I don't like Christmas - any holidays that involve family…I just don't like it, because I feel - to be truthful, I feel as if I have no family. Seletia does have a friend she met at New Pathways, someone she calls her father. He has helped her to make the difficult transition to living on her own, and she continues to rely on him for support. But it's still not the same as family. My support here, I can come to him, and he can give me all the advice in the world, but and I love him for that, I love him a lot for that, but I think it would be better coming from you know, family. You know if he can tell me, boo, you can do it, you're capable of doing this or congratulations, I'm so proud you did this - there's nothing coming from that end of the table - it's all coming from him. Seletia struggles. She doesn't have the option to sneak back home and be a kid every once in awhile. She struggles to pay her bills on time, and to find a permanent job. She struggles with depression and with the very idea of growing up feeling alone in the world. Becoming an adult is a difficult reckoning for us all, but what's different for foster children is how irrevocable, how complete their independence is. One independent living expert says that most young people, whether they were in foster care or not, don't become financially independent, let alone emotionally independent, until the age of 27. Seletia is still emotionally dependent on her family. Even though they're dead or otherwise unavailable. When things get especially hard, she writes letters to her mother. When she talks about it, she cries. I write things like why you leave me, how would it be if you still were here, is this the way its supposed to be, am I going to make it, am I not going to make it - I mean I know shes not going to answer those letters but its just something that I just write. Seletia wears a necklace that says I love you. It's a large pendant, and the letters are written in a loopy script. She bought the necklace for herself. She says it reminds her that when she thinks no one loves her, that she loves herself. And that's what makes her strong. At New Pathways, Kevin Keegan recognizes that strength in her. Seletia's not one of our stars bc she never had a problem, Seletia's one of our stars bc she understands how hard it is out there and how hard you have to work in order to make it. And that what you've got to learn. The number of kids aging out of the foster care system is at a record high. Seletia's story is one of many. For Next Generation Radio, this is Nadia Sarkis in Baltimore.