When Roel Williams was 18, he couldn’t wait to leave foster care.
“I went to a foster home in the Central District, which was run by a reverend,” he recalled. “He told me I had to fight one of the other foster children to stay in that placement. That’s when reality hit me.”
Looking back, Williams said that staying several more years in foster care – in a better home, of course – might have better eased him into adulthood.
“I had like three warrants over my head,” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was homeless. I didn’t have a job. That wasn’t person I wanted to be.”
Each year, hundreds of teens, like Williams, age out of foster care at 18. Many wind up unemployed, or homeless. Staying in optional extended foster care programs until age 21 may help ease that transition, but an investigation by KUOW in collaboration with InvestigateWest shows many kids either refuse the help, or fail to qualify for it. And state social workers are not fulfilling their obligation to help them plan.
The state has offered some extended care for foster youth since launching its first pilot program in 2006. In recent years, the Legislature has expanded the eligibility criteria to include a wider base of foster youth – first for those who were college-bound, and most recently to kids who are getting job training. One of the main benefits of staying is access to housing, either with a foster family or in another arrangement.
Still, only about 12 percent of those who age out elect to stay in extended care.
Williams, who had been in the foster care system for 11 years by the time he aged out, said he wouldn’t have been interested, even if he had qualified when he turned 18. As he put it, he’d served his time.
Changing that attitude is a key challenge for state social workers, who are hoping to get more youth to stay.
It’s a tough sell, even for motivated teens, like Desiree Lynn Marie McGill. McGill spent the last three years in foster care. This year she’s a freshman at Seattle University, on a full scholarship.
“My lifetime plan, which I may not get to, is to be a wildlife veterinary surgeon,” she said earlier this fall as she unpacked boxes in her new dorm. McGill, too, plans to opt out of extended care. At this point, she doesn’t see the need.
‘I want to get out’
At a YMCA in South Seattle, Noha Mahgoub breezes through the hallway, making quick appointments with co-workers. She is a case manager for foster youth, and she has noticed a pattern as kids prepare to age out.
“Most of the time, for that six months before they turn 18, it’s, ‘I want to get out, I want to get out,’” she said. “They cannot wait and all they’re thinking about is, ‘When I turn 18, I’m gonna leave.’”
A month before they turn 18, Mahgoub asks those kids about their exit plan. Often, she said, the answer is, “Well, I don’t know.”
State social workers are required to help kids create a transition plan. The plan covers their strategy for housing, a job, education – and the possibility of extended care.
But records suggest that in 2012 the state failed to provide or document transition services for nearly one out of three youth.
The reasons teens want to leave care are often beyond the state’s control. Some want to reconnect with their biological parents. Others just want freedom. The state can hardly compete with that.
Mahgoub also pointed out an irony of asking foster kids to decide whether to stay in the system.
“From the youth’s perspective, they’re unable to make any decisions for themselves,” she said. “And then they turn 18 and now they’re responsible for making every decision for themselves. And they don’t know how to make decisions.”
Mahgoub sometimes works odd hours, drives long distances and carries two cell phones to be accessible to youth in her program. This contact is key, she said, because a lot of youth complain about poor communication with their state social worker. The thank-you cards and photos from former foster youth that line Mahgoub's cubicle wall -- and her constantly buzzing phones -- suggest she makes an impression.
At the state Department of Social and Health Services, Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary of the Children’s Administration, said the state wants more youth in extended care because the program shows good outcomes. Enrolled kids tend to continue longer with college and become more financially stable.
She also acknowledged the state could do better to treat youth more like adults as they approach adulthood.
“Probably, historically, we have not done a very good job of that and those criticisms by the kids are probably well taken,” Strus said. “I think our social workers in some respects could do a little bit better job of including the kids in the conversations and making sure that they understand what’s going on and what the options are.”
Meanwhile, advocates say they want lawmakers to open the program to even more kids. And the state continues to refine the law.
Social services now also allow a one-year grace period for kids who age out of foster care – should they change their minds and want to opt back in.
Advocates hope these changes will draw in more kids like Williams, who need flexibility – and stability.
As for Williams, he’s 22 now, a barista at Top Pot Doughnuts in Renton. He hopes to become an advocate for foster youth, maybe with a non-profit.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason and like all that needed to happen for me to be at where I’m at right now,” he said.
He plans to start attending community college this winter.
“I feel like I’m doing adult things, but I’m still a kid at heart,” he said. He laughed: “But I mean, what does it mean to be an adult? Like, to be boring?”
Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.
This piece is a collaboration between InvestigateWest and KUOW. Read stories on foster care at InvestigateWest.