NEW ORLEANS - Darrell Howard, 18, graduated with honors last month from Landry-Walker High School and is planning to attend Bard College in New York this fall on a competitive scholarship.
But times haven't always been so certain.
“If it wasn't for God allowing me somewhere to go, I would have been like many other kids are, being homeless or living with family members that they may not prefer to live with,” he said.
Howard turned 18 in November, which meant he aged out of foster care. He was just a few months into his senior year of high school.
In the past, the state would have helped him pay for transitional housing through the Department of Child and Family Services’ Young Adult Program. But that program was cut on July 1, 2013 -- the start of this fiscal year.
The program’s end left Howard, and more than 135 others, scrambling.
“It was a bad time for me when I became aware of it. It just caused worry,” said Howard
Howard was able to get an apartment on the West Bank through BeREAL, a mentoring organization for foster children that took a special interest in his case and worked to come up with the funding to help Howard pay rent. But others haven't been so lucky.
“We have a youth who aged out in February of this year, and she's been homeless since February,” said Joy Bruce, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates New Orleans, or CASA. “She’s on her third couch since February.”
CASA is a group of court-appointed advocates for abused or neglected children. Bruce says some private organizations have stepped in to help individual kids, but cutting the Young Adult Program means many aging out of foster care are left with very limited choices.
“You have no home, you're all alone. That's what you're going to focus on, is finding a home, is getting a roof over your head,” Bruce said. “You’re not going to focus on education or your health or any of those things that are so important to an 18 year old."
Some teens who age out of foster care are already turning to places like the Covenant House, according to executive director Jim Kelly. Covenant House is a shelter for homeless and runaway youth.
“I think we're going to continue to see an uptick in the number of kids needing our services, because the supports that were there to help them as they turned 18, and to help them get on their feet, are completely gone,” said Kelly.
The Covenant House began tracking the number of youth coming from the foster care system after the Young Adult Program disappeared.
So far, Kelly has found that 25 percent of the youth who turn to the Covenant House every night came from the foster care system- they either aged out or ran away from the system before turning 18.
But the state says the end of the Young Adult Program is actually a positive change. Brent Villemarette, deputy secretary of programs for the Department of Child and Family Services, says the state has decided to refocus its efforts on finding a permanent plan for youth before they turn 18.
“We have fewer children who are leaving foster care at the age of 18, which really shows that we're achieving permanency for those kids, which could be adoption, which could be going back to their family of origin,” said Villemarette.
So far in the fiscal year 2013, 172 teens have aged out of foster care, compared with 230 in fiscal year 2012.
The Department of Child and Family Services says it has partnered with other organizations, including the Louisiana Housing Corporation, to provide transitional services like Section 8 housing and rental assistance.
The Housing Corporation has carved out some section 8 housing for teens aging out of foster care who are employed and can pay rent, said Villemarette.
But Bruce tells a different story.
“Former foster kids are eligible to be placed on the list for housing vouchers, but it is just that: a list. Section 8 has not opened the list and released vouchers in years, and there is no guarantee that our kids will be high enough on the list to receive vouchers the next time they are released, " said Bruce, noting that the teenage girl left homeless after she aged out of foster care in February has been unable to get housing through that program.
Teens can also get a $500 monthly stipend to help with their living expenses, and beginning this year, they are able to get Medicaid until they turn 26, said DCFS. The Louisiana Workforce Commission has also partnered with DCFS to provide some job training.
But advocates say those services are not enough to fill in the gaps for a vulnerable population.
“We want them out of the system, but are we getting them to a healthy family? Are we getting them to healthy homes to live in?” asked Kelly.
“They just need a little bit more help,” Bruce said. “Nobody is ready to be completely independent at 18, but if we invest now in these youth, then we won't have to pay for it later.”
The Young Adult Program was funded by $1.3 million in state general funds in the last fiscal year.