How Michigan foster youths are transitioning to adulthood successfully

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Marquette County has launched Transitions MQT, a new program matching youth in foster care with caring adult mentors who act as guides to help them succeed after aging out of the foster care system.
For most young people, reaching the age of 18 is an exciting, long-awaited milestone. Adulthood. Freedom to make your own decisions, to follow any dreamed-of path. Fortunately, most of these fledgling adults have a safety net: parents to offer support and guidance, a home to retreat to if the real world's edges are a little sharper than anticipated. But for young adults aging out of the foster care system, turning 18 can mean the abrupt withdrawal of their safety net. They face adult life without a buffer, with nowhere to go back to if life's challenges are more than they can manage alone.

Jason Sides, coordinator of the Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says support is crucial for these young people. "Critical needs for youth transitioning to independent living include having positive social supports, financial competency, access to employment, education, transportation and affordable housing," he says. "Their needs are the same as other youth, with the caveat that they don't have the typical safety nets of others who hadn't experienced an out of home placement."

Michigan's Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care Program, introduced in 2012, allows young adults to remain in the foster care system until they turn 21. Youths continue to receive health care services, counseling, and foster care payments. Participants must be enrolled in school, a GED program, or college, or work a minimum of 80 hours per month.

In Upper Michigan, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Marquette County is adding a mentoring component: Transitions MQT. Big Brothers Big Sisters was awarded a contract through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to serve one of five designated regions in Michigan. Sides is the local conduit between the youth in foster care and Transition MQT, which is open to youths ages 14-21. Referrals come to Sides via DHHS personnel or private agency foster care staff. Sides ensures the youth being referred meet the eligibility criteria, and forwards those referrals to BBBS to begin the match process.

Liz Sherman is the program's mentoring supervisor at BBBS. She explains the program was officially launched in July, when mentors began training. Matches are in the process of being established. Mentors are volunteers from the community who are 21 or older.

"We hope to provide them with the tools and support they need to help them continue their education, secure housing, steady employment, and teach them how to live on their own," she says.

One on one, caring mentorship can mean the difference between success or defeat for foster children entering adulthood, says Sides. "National statistics tell us that more than one in five (foster children) will become homeless after age 18, merely 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19, fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25, and one in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system.I believe it's essential that students from foster care have supportive adults in their lives, people they can really rely upon as they exit care," he says.

Older foster children who found placements may or may not maintain contact with their foster parents, says Sides. "I'd say it is less contact than with a typical nuclear family structure," he says. "Some youth prefer to sever all ties to their past and completely move on from their time in foster care, whereas others continue to maintain contact. I guess it all depends on what sort of relationship was established while the youth was in their home and whether the youth is receptive to whatever set of morals or norms were attempting to be instilled during their particular placement."

Sherman echoes Sides's sentiments on the need for foster care youth to have strong adult support. "Youth in foster care often do not get the help they need with high school completion, employment, accessing health care, continued education, housing and traditional living arrangements. Many find themselves in the legal system, homeless, or young, unprepared parents. These young people are in need of a caring adult to stand by them through this difficult transition. That is what this program offers. The mentor will serve as a resource, a guide, a friend and a support during this difficult time.

Youth in foster care begin working on independent living skills at age 14. Caseworkers work one on one with youths, connecting them to community services. Youths are also eligible to participate in the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, a statewide partnership program between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. MYOI seeks to improve quality of life for youths exiting care by providing financial literacy training, skill building exercises and leadership opportunities. Transition MQT "will enhance these services already in place" for local youth, says Sides.

Sherman says each mentor/mentee match will have a specific area of focus, depending on the needs of each youth. "Our goal is that each youth involved will have the resources that they need to be successful in life on their own," she says. There is a minimum six-month commitment, but participants are able to stay in the program until they are 21. "Our hope is to make matches that will last a lifetime," says Sherman.

How will Transition MQT's success be measured? Sides's clinical answer as a social work professional is that satisfaction surveys, and success in matching youth with mentors, will provide a goal to meet.

His answer as a man deeply invested in the long-term success of the youths he works with and for is a little more complex. He says, "Success can be achieved simply by exposing the youth to positive relationships that will help them in making life decisions as they transition to adulthood."
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