Georgia program helps transition from foster care to independence

Michael Fulcher and Daniel McAllister both opted to return to the state's extended foster care program. The program aims to help those in foster care transition to independent living after turning 18. Courtesy photo.

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Michael Fulcher and Daniel McAllister both opted to return to the state's extended foster care program. The program aims to help those in foster care transition to independent living after turning 18. Courtesy photo.

Michael Fulcher said his combative personality makes it difficult for him to stay out of trouble.

The 19-year-old was kicked out of his mother’s Tennessee home at 16 because he was causing problems at school and getting arrested for fighting.

So he found himself living in a hotel room in the Athens area and not going to school when someone tipped off Georgia Division of Family and Children Services officials. DFCS placed him in foster care in Athens.

Normally he would have been back out on his own in a few years, but six months after he turned 18, Fulcher decided to take advantage of a state program that helps young adults transition to independent life by the time they turn 21.

“I tend to get in trouble on my own,” he said. “As foster kids, and kids in general, we’re still discovering ourselves, even at 18.

“The state, acting as your parent, has been kicking kids out when they turn 18. Would you kick your kids out of the house on their 18th birthday?”

Fulcher is one of more than 700 young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 in the state’s extended foster care program. He’s living with a roommate in Atlanta in the division’s independent living program, working at Taco Bell and pursuing his GED diploma.

The program aims to prepare foster children who may not have been taught life skills while in the system to live independently, said Lamar Smith, a section director with DFCS.

“A robust amount of young people decide to stay in care or return to foster care,” Smith said.

In 2017, 420 of the 596 young adults who turned 18 while in foster care returned to the program within six months of their birthday. There are more than 14,000 children under age 18 in foster care. The average age of a child in foster care is 8 years old.

Teens and siblings are the hardest to find permanent homes for, and the longer children are in foster care, the harder it is for them to get adopted, DFCS officials said. Nearly half of children who enter foster care are "discharged" — whether to a birth parent, family member of adoptive parent — within a year of entering the system.

Young adults who receive extended foster care are placed in group homes or apartments, are taught life skills such as handling money and interviewing for jobs, and are required to either continue their education or hold steady employment.

The Georgia General Assembly this year passed legislation that allows DFCS to tweak its extended foster care so the state qualifies for federal funding.

The changes — which include allowing young adults who have been in foster care to return regardless of how long it’s been since they turned 18 and suspending school and work requirements for those with developmental disabilities — will occur between now and July 1, 2020.

The state is taking the next two years to partner with housing and mentorship programs and employers and will present the plan to the federal government for approval.

If the program remains at its current size, DFCS officials say the federal reimbursement could save the state up to $17.8 million per year.

“(The savings) allows us to reinvest in our system for things like mentoring and ensuring that young people are connected to positive influences or positive groups,” Smith said.

Daniel McAllister, 19, said being in the extended foster care program has helped him find a sense of purpose. McAllister said he was adopted shortly after he was born, but his parents gave up their rights when he was 14.

“When my parents gave up their rights, I felt like I didn’t have to listen to anyone anymore,” he said. “Eventually, I realized that was only going to get me into trouble.”

Now McAllister lives in an apartment with two roommates in Atlanta. He said the program has him working with a life coach who is helping him develop life skills, got him registered to vote and helped him learn how to do household chores like cooking and laundry — things a parent would have taught him.

McAllister said being in the program gives him a sense of independence.

“A lot of kids don’t know what they need to know to live on their own,” McAllister said. “(The program) gives a sense of light (in) the darkness.”

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