De’Rae Brown was 10 when he saw his alcoholic mother stand up in court and surrender her maternal rights. Over the next decade, he would move among two dozen foster homes.
At an age when other teens turn to their moms or dads to learn to drive, apply for college and find first jobs, Brown didn’t have a parent to lean on. It was YMCA life coach Matt Smith who helped him track down his birth certificate, open his first bank account, land a job and weigh the pros and cons of joining the Minnesota National Guard.
The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities is one of a handful of nonprofits partnering with the state and counties to offer specialized support and guidance to 18- to 21-year olds who grow too old for foster care.
“I don’t think I would have ever figured it all out on my own,” said Brown, 21, and now in the National Guard.
Every year in the United States, more than 23,000 teens age out of foster care without a permanent home or family. For years, foster kids turning 18 — many of them already vulnerable from neglect and abuse in their birth families — were pushed out of the system with little help.
According to a growing body of research, that often results in higher rates of unemployment, arrest and homelessness later in life.
In 2010, Minnesota, using federal funding and help from nonprofits, started offering extended foster care to 18- 21-year olds who were either working or enrolled in school. About 800 are enrolled annually in the voluntary program, in which young adults work with social workers and life coaches.
“We are trying different things to remedy this. It’s been an area that had been neglected for a long time,” said Jim Koppel, assistant commissioner for children and family services in the state Human Services Department.
The state and counties offer case managers and financial assistance, about $800 a month per individual, according to Hennepin County. The government agencies then contract with nonprofits such as the YMCA to provide social support for the young adults.
“It’s teaching them how to be self-sufficient and thrive. You can throw money at this, but you still need caring adults to make the difference,” said Matt Kjorstad, executive director at the YMCA.
The YMCA employs nine life coaches who have worked with about 400 young adults, interacting with them anywhere from once to several times a week. The YMCA’s annual budget for all foster care services is $750,000.
High expectations, less help
The programs are designed to help young people negotiate that often stormy stage of life when they strike out on their own but later decide they need some help.
Janine Moore, Hennepin County’s area director of children and family services, called the hands-on help from the county’s nonprofit partners vital in helping them succeed.
“We can’t do it without them. We need them to be our partners in providing services and really carrying the torch for these youth,” Moore said.
Even as middle- and upper-class children more and more linger in the nest well into their 20s, foster kids have been expected to “make it on their own long before the vast majority of their peers,” according to a group of researchers led by University of Chicago Professor Mark E. Courtney.
His seminal study found that former foster kids who age out of the system rack up twice the number of arrests and earn only one-third of the money of peers in their 20s.
Nonprofit partners help the new adults with the nitty-gritty details of life: getting a cellphone, figuring out the bus schedule, applying to college and trade school.
“It’s imperative we have the funding policies and programs set up so kids who reach the age of majority while in foster care have similar opportunities to their peers who are not in foster care,” said Traci La¬Liberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.
‘Someone … actually cared’
Things as simple as grocery shopping and budgeting are life skills most parents routinely pass along to their children, but many foster kids don’t have those experiences to lean on. That’s where the YMCA life coaches jump in.
The YMCA’s program mixes business and pleasure. Coaches and teens, who connect as early as age 16, work on life-skill goals and build relationships through hobbies.
For instance, Brown and Smith tried dirt biking together. When Smith got promoted, Brown went canoeing with a new life coach, Brianna Haugen. They regularly go grocery shopping.
That builds a rapport and trust, so Brown feels comfortable discussing school, career, budgets and eventually relationships and future plans. When a reunion with Brown’s mother didn’t go so well, he called his life coach to talk it out.
“The best part of having a life coach is you have someone to talk to,” he said. “It felt like I really had someone who actually cared.”
Life coaches “are very well trained and really understand foster care and the foster care system and what our youth go through,” said Tracy Neil, supervisor of extended foster care for Hennepin County.
Brown’s life coaches have helped him make some of the biggest decisions in his life. When he first thought he wanted to be a video game designer, they helped him enroll in a graphic design program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
A year into the program, when Brown realized that wasn’t his calling, he had long talks with Smith before joining the National Guard. That way he could take advantage of the GI bill and go to school to become a neurologist.
Brown, who is naturally athletic, said the military suits him. He shared stories of climbing a tree to glimpse the enemy in Croatia and sharing a foxhole with a nest of rattlesnakes during basic training. He wrote letters to his life coach during those trips.
Smith helped Brown rent a studio apartment and took him on the rite-of-passage shopping trip to pick out towels, bedsheets and toilet paper.
Now his new life coach, Haugen, is helping him prepare for his driving exam. She’s also prepping him for a job interview.
“It’s such an amazing relationship you get to have with these kids. We are absolutely the passengers in the car with them,” Haugen said.