SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The assistance Chris Bailey received paying rent and utilities after dropping out of college helped the former foster child adjust to life on his own. Having someone available to talk with and to provide advice was even more valuable.
"We would just hang out and talk about life. He helped me set goals, both short term and long term," said Bailey, 21, of his case manager. "It really just helped me in growing up."
The help Bailey received came through Indiana's Collaborative Care program, which was started two years ago to help fill the gaps left when youths age out of traditional foster care at age 18. The program arose from the Fostering Connections Act passed by Congress in 2008 to encourage states to extend benefits foster youths receive to age 21.
Alishea Hawkins, assistant deputy director of services and outcomes for the Indiana Department of Child Services, said the program is designed to provide financial and emotional support to help participants become self-supporting adults. Its services include helping older teenagers live on their own and providing opportunities to become more independent through programs that teach household skills including cooking and budgeting and life skills such as how to apply for and keep a job.
"Many of our young people grow up in foster care where they are told what to do, when to do it and how to do it," she said. "So many of these young people get to late adolescence and they really don't have the skills and abilities to make those decisions.
The program, she said, is intended "as a replacement for that family, that social network."
The program gives older youths in foster care more options than the state offered previously, including the chance to live on their own in apartments. They also can work with service providers to receive training they need to become independent.
Those opportunities are critical to help foster youths overcome challenges such as abuse and being moved from home to home, which can make it hard to make friends, attain academic stability and feel a sense of control, experts say.
To be eligible, youths must be in school or be working at least 80 hours a month or enrolled in a program that will help them get a job by providing money for housing and life-skills training.
Participants can live in a host home — sometimes with a relative — or in a group home, a college dorm or in an apartment with our without roommates. Case workers will walk those who want to move into an apartment through the process, from determining how much they can afford to pay to identifying a location and filling out an application.
"They'll help them with all of those pieces it takes moving from dependency into an independent living arrangement," Hawkins said.
David Reed, senior director of client services at The Villages of Indiana Inc., an Indianapolis-based agency that works with aged-out foster children, said the program is critical to helping those youths develop basic life skills.
"They are not prepared at age 18 to be able to go maintain an apartment and have food in their refrigerators and their pantries," Reed said. "They need support from the state to provide those very basic things to help keep them alive."
Hawkins said each former foster child needs different skills, so it's up to service providers such as The Villages to develop individual plans. The primary goal, she said, is to provide a safety net and connections so that youths "have some folks around their table, on their team, in their social network that they can rely on lifelong."
Bailey understands those needs.
At 12, he was removed from a home where he was abused and neglected and placed into state care. Starting at age 14, he was moved into nine different foster or group homes during a two-year stretch. He saw his younger brother get adopted along the way.
At 16, he moved into a group home where the people who operated it became his foster parents. He now considers them his parents.
Collaborative Care wasn't available when Bailey graduated from Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis three years ago. He heard about the program after he dropped out of Indiana State University.
The support he's received has helped him save enough money to move back to central Indiana and get a good job, he said.
He now works in information technology in the Lebanon Community School Corp., 25 miles northwest of Indianapolis, and has been married for four months. Although he's out of the Collaborative Care program, he still keeps in touch with his case manager.
"We both like Apple products, so we talk about that, how things are going, life," he said. "It's nice the program is there, especially for kids who don't have anything or anybody."