Independent Living homes offer a solution to youth aging out of foster care

“A lot of times, older kids have been in the system for many years so they have a lot of behavioral issues, they’ve burned a lot of bridges, whether it’s with family members or people they’ve lived with, so they don’t really have a great support system there to help provide housing options as well,” says Samaritas’ West Michigan Director of Child Services Trisha Sverns. “...something that typically you or I might do if we are in difficult times, we might move back in with our parents or stay with a sibling, something like that. They don’t have those options available.”

Sverns is referring to the challenge older teens face, who are more difficult to place in foster care homes.

“It’s just hard because [foster parents] generally come into foster care wanting to take care of younger kids, so there’s a shortage of homes,” Sverns says.

As a result, the non-profit human resource organization Samaritas opened its doors to a new type of service as a way to address these needs. In 2015, the organization opened their first Independent Living Plus home for teens in the Southfield area, a program where they house four to six teens aged 16 to 19 who are in the foster care system.

The teens are placed in these homes on a referral basis through the Department of Health Services or other private agencies looking to place youth in adequate homes, and from there, a caseworker interviews the individual, assessing their capacity to successfully finish the program and in some sense, how well they will fit in with the other teens already there.

“What we’ve been able to see is that we have kids that are sometimes placed in residential settings like a treatment facility, and kids that age [out] have nowhere to go so they stay there longer than they need to,” says Sverns. “So we’ve been able to see a lot of kids come out of those programs because of this housing option, so they can then transition back into the community.”

Since opening up their first Independent Living Plus home, they have expanded in Lansing, Flint, Taylor, Holland, and more recently, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids this past year. Overall, they are able to house 49 teens, and plan to expand even more in 2019.

What separates these Independent Living homes from a foster care home is the importance they places on building life skills from a place of practicality. The homes are staffed 16 hours a day to provide guidance when needed, and each teen is paired with a case manager and a life coach to ensure their personal needs are being met. The staff may be called on to assist with skills as basic as learning how to do laundry, helping with homework, or doing meal prep. The case manager is responsible for referring teens to resources they may need, making sure they are enrolled in school, and helping them with funding for things like driver’s education or a computer for school, etc.

The life skills coach even goes a step further, “[assessing] each of our youth and figuring out where their individual deficits are in terms of where they need to learn some skills in order to work successfully on their own after they leave our program,” according to Sverns. They educate teens on how to use the bus system, how to apply for resource benefits, or even how to apply for jobs.

Overall, in the three years that the program has been in effect, there has been measurable improvement among youth after leaving the program seen through the KC Life Skill Assessment, taken every quarter. Using this tool, staff are able to understand what skills each child has acquired or how much their skills have developed.

Something not as easily measurable — something that these Independent Living homes try to develop — are support systems for when teens leave the program. By introducing youth to community organizations and services while they are in the program, the hope is that they continue to use those resources and maintain those relationships long after.

“We had people who wanted to mentor kids, and that’s definitely something we would love to do, but I think it’s tricky because people care and they want to get involved and help, but really these kids need long-term support,” says Sverns. “I think it’s more helpful if we can find a way to connect them to the community or even churches or other organizations that would be there for them in the long run.”

Images courtesy of Samaritas.
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