Help For Former Foster Children

Establishing roots is a little easier for former foster children, thanks to a national program designed to help them become financially-fit adults. In 2001, Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St. Louis-based foundation that helps young people transition out of foster care by providing services that promote independent living.

The pilot program targets the 20,000 young people (42% of whom are African American) who leave foster care each year without the financial support to succeed. It offers housing assistance as well as education, employment, and healthcare to former foster care children between the ages of 14 and 23 residing in select cities or counties nationwide.

Once admitted, participants receive financial literacy training, including the basics of banking, and are given $100 in seed money to open an Individual Development Account. For every dollar a participant saves, the program matches $4 for home down payments, $3 for funds to start a business, and $1 for car purchases and other expenses. Funds can also be used to help with college tuition, medical expenses, computer purchases, and apartment deposits. Asset-specific training, such as homeownership counseling, is required before receiving matching funds.

After age 18, states are no longer obligated to provide care or financial assistance to those in the foster care system. Program organizers believe the initiative is a much-needed boost for a population at risk of falling through the cracks. Typically, foster children “turn 18, have no money, and haven’t graduated from high school,” says Gary Stangler, the program’s executive director. “The notion of savings is foreign. Their foremost need is money.” According to the foundation, within four years of leaving foster care, 25% of the population becomes homeless, while less than 20% become self-supporting adults.

Two Atlanta women, Anita Alston and Katrina Lawson, recently became the first to obtain homes with assistance from the program. Lawson learned about the program in 2003 and tapped into the matching savings account to purchase a home.

Working two full-time jobs as a deputy sheriff and a hospital lab technician, the single mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Larenzia, saved $1,000 within four months and used the matching funds of $4,000 as down payment on a $200,000 home in an Atlanta suburb.

“It was hard to move out on my own,” says the native of Peoria, Illinois, who was raised in three different foster homes since the age of 7. “Where to live, how to go to school, and how to pay bills were all concerns”.

Alston, a Baltimore native, was placed in state custody after being abandoned at birth. Her grandparents were granted kinship care and moved her to Atlanta at age 8.

Once she learned of the program at a conference, “I jumped on it,” says the 23-year-old program operation assistant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between June and September 2005, Alston cut back on trips to the nail salon, shopping, and dining out. She saved $1,000, received $4,000 in matching funds, and purchased a $134,000 townhouse