Turned Out | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Turned Out

For some in foster care, turning 18 means hitting the streets

In some ways, Tina Tyler is a lot like many other 19-year-olds. She works at a clothing retailer; she treasures her independence; and she'd like to go to college. But what distinguishes Tyler from her peers is how far she's had to travel just to get here -- and how much harder the road ahead still is.

At age 10, when her mother died, Tyler moved into a group home for girls. As she grew older, she grew restless. After five years, she started a slide that moved her from program to program, and eventually away from the system entirely.

"Basically I didn't want any more drama from the system," Tyler says. "I would feel rebellious. I'm grown, so you're not going to tell me when to come in, and when to lay down, and when to eat."

But as difficult as being in the child-welfare system can be, the really hard part is being out of it. Tyler is one of the more than 200 young adults who "age out" of the system in Allegheny County every year.

Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families protects children from abuse and neglect -- sometimes by placing them in foster care or group housing. But at age 18, young adults usually leave the system. While living under the care of the county can be restrictive and unbalanced, facing the world alone can be even more daunting.

"I have me to fall back on," says Tyler. "That's it." As soon as she was given the choice, Tyler split ways with the institutions and agencies of child welfare – having been familiar with them for too long.

Nine years ago, she was relocated from the Bronx to Pittsburgh, to be closer to her father's family, but she says her grandmother was ill and her father was never very warm to her. She was placed in a girls' group home, where she stayed until her behavior got her tossed out. She was 15 at the time.

"That's when I started to bounce from shelter to placement to shelter to placement," Tyler says. She became resentful of a system that imposed rules on her lifestyle. She bottomed out one January when she decided to run away from her shelter. "I was actually sleeping in an abandoned house with my friend," she says. "We only had this little heater. ... After that, and not eating, that's when we just realized, 'What are we doing?'" They spent one week in the cold before turning themselves in. At 17, she moved in with a serious boyfriend, but that ended, too.

Some social workers say that youth agencies aren't doing enough to help people like Tyler transition into adulthood. "The way our society looks at it, we look at 18-and-below and 21-and-over," says Myra Powell, the supervisor of a Strip District drop-in center called the Hub. "I almost want to say they're forgotten, that 18-to-21-year-old."

The Hub is part of a local nonprofit that receives most of its funding from government fees and grants. It provides for the immediate needs of runaway or homeless young adults – such as food, clothing, laundry and shower facilities -- but it also offers psychiatric counseling and help with filling out complex financial-aid forms or lease agreements.

Powell says that she has many people who come into the Hub with nothing but the clothes on their backs and what they can cram into a knapsack; some don't even have proper ID. "Our society pulls away the support of young people when they need it the most," she adds. "They don't have that support to go back to. ... They don't have someone to give them pots and pans" when they move into their first apartments.

Tyler drops by the Hub to check her e-mail and to help out where she can. She'd like to study law, but doesn't expect to be able to do so until next fall. Unlike most teens, Tyler doesn't have a pair of parents who've been saving up for her education – or even an adult around to help her fill out financial-aid forms.

"I'm about to hit my 20s, so whatever I'm going to actually go for, I want to go for it and just work on it until I progress up to the level I need to be at," she says. "I want to be sure about what I want to do."

The Hub isn't the only agency focusing on the 18-21-year-olds, but Powell says the need for more still exists. "We need more housing programs. We need more supportive programs," she says. "Programs to help people transition out of the street life."

When children in the system turn 18, they're free to go wherever they choose. Some decide to return home, but Sharlene Gray – who runs The Bridge of Pittsburgh, a one-stop center for transitioning youth – says the conditions there are sometimes no better than when they first left.

"There's no food in the home. There's no electricity. Nobody's working," she says. "If you stay in that house, what is it going to do for you?"

Gray says that The Bridge, which is a little more than a year and a half old, focuses on "a target population that people don't see," late-teens who run into financial, social and psychological barriers as they struggle to reach adulthood. From a Downtown office, the Bridge offers training in life and education skills – which includes things like SAT prep and college tours – for transitioning youth.

"They don't have a parent that they can go to, as any of us would, when they turn 18 and they're going to college," she says.

Some try to set out on their own, but it's a difficult path for an 18-year-old with little money and no credit. Others bounce from friend's pad to friend's pad. There are, of course, adult shelters, but that means mixing in with a population of all ages – some of whom are struggling with addiction or mental problems.

"Often times, that person will opt for the streets quicker than they will the shelter," Gray says.

In addition to avoiding the adult homeless population, some people just don't want to deal with the system anymore. Tyler is living with an older cousin, and working toward a more ordinary life. "I think by the time I was 17, I realized that the streets were always going to be here, and that the same people I see on the block were still going to be around when I came back around," she says. "So I figured ... I would have to upgrade and get myself to a higher level, basically get on society's level with everyone else."

But she knows she's not going to get there selling T-shirts and jeans. "I'm falling a lot behind," she says. "It bothers me, but it doesn't upset me. ... You can't question God. You can't go, 'Why have you given me this life?' But by the same token, a lot of my friends are already in college, have had the money to go to college since they could think about college."

Two years ago, the county's Department of Human Services launched Embark!, a mentoring program to help youths make it to college or develop "other independent living skills," as part of an effort to replace aging out with transitioning into.

According to an Embark! handbook, 240 18-year-olds transitioned out of the child-welfare system in 2006. Last year, one in six made it to some form of post-secondary education.

Embark! director Jacki Hoover says the program is guiding 75 young adults into college this year, acknowledging that in years past, those who were aging out of the system were far from a priority.

"Allegheny County has been a model agency at a national level," Hoover says. "But we realized that while we might be keeping our young people safe ... our young adults were leaving and having the door slammed on them."

The county wasn't alone in its lack of attention. Jeffrey Shook, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, says there hasn't been much research done on this population of vulnerable youth.

"My sense is that for a long time, this was a population that was kind of ignored," he says. "There's some people who have been doing this for a while, but I think that [now] there's more people coming and looking at it."

Shook is a co-principal investigator on a new study that is looking at the experiences of youth ages 16-18 transitioning out of the child-welfare system in Allegheny County. He says there are various theories about why some people who age out of the system do better than others: Some research, for example, suggests that kids who stay in the system longer do better once they leave. But the root explanation "hasn't been empirically determined yet."

"A key question becomes, how can you structure the system to provide the support that is necessary while at the same time providing the independence that kids at that [late-teen] age need?" Shook asks.

But more services usually means more money, and often the providers simply "don't have the resources," Shook says. "You're dealing with a child-welfare system that's overtaxed [and] it's doing a job that's sort of impossible to do."

Still, Powell argues that investing on the front end – when the youth are trying to become productive members of society – is better than the alternative.

"I believe that if you don't pay in the beginning, you'll pay in the end," Powell says. The choice, she says, is between leading these young adults to colleges or sending them to jails and mental wards.

Tyler has already had a taste of the other side, at times questioning her ability just to stay sane. "Once your mind tells you that things are always going to be this way, and it's never going to change, I think that's when people start to really lose control," she says.

But now she's committed to having more than was given to her. And her path through the system taught her one lesson, at least, that she wouldn't have gotten elsewhere.

"Because of placement and that whole situation, I always felt defensive; people are looking at me like a charity case and people are looking at me like the little black girl lost," she says. "I figure if I could just show people that I am somebody, then I am somebody."

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