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Caring for kids after foster care

WILLMAR -- When Crystal Rader was 13 years old, she was put in her first out-of-home placement in Kandiyohi County.

Bad choices and poor behavior had Rader stuck in a revolving door going in and out of different group homes, foster care homes, shelter houses and secure facilities.

When the petite, dark-haired Rader was 18 years old and no longer eligible to receive foster care, she found herself living in an unsafe environment, drinking and using drugs and not enrolled in college.

Intervention by county social workers, however, put Rader in the Search program, provided by Lutheran Social Service as part of its contract with the county.

The program teaches independent living skills for youth ages 16 to 21. The weekly group meetings also reinforce learning, leadership and team-building skills.

As she stood before the Kandi-yohi County Commissioners this week, Rader said the program has helped her work through a long list of issues like anger management, staying sober, finding a job, transportation and housing and money management and living skills.

Rader, who is now 20, is attending school at Ridgewater College, volunteers in a kindergarten classroom in a local elementary school and is "making a better life for myself."

When asked later where she would be now without that help, Rader said "in jail or on the streets."

Rader's story is an example of why many youth need support after foster care goes away, said Angie Mateski, Lutheran Social Service youth transition coordinator.

Legally, foster parents have no obligation to continue to provide support to youth once they turn 18, she said. Many youth, however, are not able to navigate the challenges of living on their own after leaving foster care.

Often, kids who have graduated from foster care end up homeless, Mateski said.

"According to the most recent statistics from Wilder Research, 64 percent of Minnesota's unaccompanied homeless youth under age 21 have a history of out-of-home placement," Mateski said.

Programs offered through Lutheran Social Service in concert with Kandiyohi County Family Services -- such as their street outreach program, community teen moms program, youth leadership council and housing programs -- have helped youth and young adults live independently after foster care ends, she said.

Last month Lutheran Social Service helped six youth obtain temporary housing and basic needs through its Street Outreach Program, which Mateski said was a "dramatic increase" from previous numbers.

Federal stimulus funding helped Lutheran Social Service provide financial assistance and case management for 64 youth through its housing programs during the last two years.

"This has made a huge dent in our waiting lists and the homeless youth population in our county," she said.

When that funding ends in September, however, the housing program capacity will shrink to 26, said Mateski. "This will leave us with waiting lists of 20 to 30 young people at any given time."

Kathy Nelson, family services supervisor, said new federal mandates that went into effect in August require counties to now offer full foster care benefits to young adults until they reach age 21. The purpose of the increased requirements is to prevent homelessness for youth after they leave foster care, she said.

In Kandiyohi County, three to five youth graduate from foster care each year that could be eligible to receive foster care benefits, including $750 in monthly maintenance payments.

The law contains specific requirements for social workers, but Nelson said there are "gray areas" in how the law is interpreted for some cases. For example, foster care after 18 could be defined as a dorm room.

Just because the county is required to offer the services to age 21, it doesn't mean the help will be accepted. Eligible youth may not want to continue with any kind of foster care services after they turn 18, including regular court appearances on their part, and can opt out.

So far, said Nelson, none of the youth who have aged out of foster care have accepted the additional services.

"A lot of our kids, at 18, don't want to remain in foster care. They just want to be done," she said. But some will need -- and want -- the extra services. "We don't know how this will play out."

Rader, who is not receiving foster care benefits but is enrolled in Lutheran Social Service programs funded by the county, admits accepting help isn't easy, even though she knows without it she would be worse off. She knows she will need that help to stay in school and stay sober.

Rader was congratulated for her six months of sobriety by Commissioner Jim Butterfield who said he will celebrate 31 years of sobriety in July. "So it can be done," he said.


Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750