A Recipe For Success
Giving older foster youth the tools they need to succeed in life and in the workplace
Jacob Newton, like most 21-year-olds, has life dreams. “My gifts are cooking and music. My goals are to get my culinary arts certification, start and keep a job, and save money so I can get a car and my own place.”
But unlike most youth, Jacob has a hidden hurdle to overcome on the path to achieving his dreams. He spent the last five years in the foster system, and is now leaving the system to start out on his own.
Memories of Family and Making New Connections
Before entering the foster system at age 16, Jacob remembers a family life that influenced his current path.
“My best memories are of cooking with my family. There was peace in the house when the family cooked,” Jacob reminisced. “I can remember being nine years old, helping my mom cook dessert for Thanksgiving, helping Dad with the turkey, and making a honey glaze with brown sugar for the ham.”
But Jacob’s life took a sudden turn when he went into foster care as a teenager due to abuse and neglect. “Before I entered foster care, all I was used to was my family. I didn’t understand how the state could take me and my brothers and sisters away from our home. It was a really traumatic time in my life.”
The trauma of being separated from your family can carry a high risk for foster youth. Compared to their non-foster peers, foster youth are at a much greater risk for a variety of financial and personal issues. For Jacob, a key step was connecting with Jackson County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which serve the greater Kansas City, Mo., area.
“I met my CASA Volunteer, Katie, when I first came into care at age 16,” Jacob said. “Then, in 2015, I started working with CASA’s program to help older foster youth become financially independent.”
The Risks for Foster Youth
Many foster youth out on their own for the first time lack adequate education and role models for good financial practices. This puts them at a high risk for missteps that can cause long-term problems.
“Foster youth can become victims of many financial schemes including payday loans, rental scams, rent-to-own furniture stores, telephone scams, pyramid schemes, identity theft, and high-interest credit cards and loans,” says Kathryn Hartzler, Jackson County CASA’s Older Youth Specialist.
Even if a foster youth avoids such threats, they may lack basic information about the costs of utilities and other expenses beyond the cost of rent. Foster teens who fall into these traps are at risk for eviction, homelessness, and vehicle repossession. One poor decision can ruin their credit for years to come, devastating their financial future and self-esteem.
“Many youth ‘age out’ of the system feeling like they have to prove to the world that they can make it on their own,” says Kathryn. “If they fail to achieve the successes their peers experience, it can cause emotional turmoil. That can lead to relapses in previous harmful behaviors (such as substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, and self-harming behaviors) which can spiral into further issues.
CASA Fills the Gap
“Not a single teen leaves foster care wanting to fail,” says Kathryn. “But many youth fail when leaving custody because no one took the time to explain to them the basic financial skills parents usually teach their kids.”
To help fill this missing piece of the puzzle, Jackson County CASA introduced its Employment and Financial Literacy Program in 2015. The program, which is supported by State Farm, teaches teens about the financial realities of adulthood while coaching them as they navigate life decisions.
For every teen who enters this program, CASA conducts a life skills assessment every six months. Then the teen’s CASA volunteer, case supervisor, attorney, and Older Youth Specialist develop an action plan and goals to meet the needs of that specific teen.
“Many people have the same expectations of foster youth as they do for their peers who grew up in safe and permanent homes,” says Kathryn. “CASA volunteers and staff recognize success may look different for our older foster youth compared to their peers who did not experience the trauma of the foster care system.”
CASA volunteers are already familiar with each youth’s past, having worked with them for long periods. That knowledge, combined with an array of services and workshops, gives every teen in the CASA Older Foster Youth program the tools they need to succeed and overcome their specific obstacles.
Since the program began in 2015, Jackson County CASA’s Older Youth Specialist has provided direct financial and employment education to more than 75 youths in the Kansas City area.
The Ingredients for a Better Tomorrow
For Jacob, the understanding, sense of connection, and tools provided by Jackson County CASA has helped open doors to a better future.
“Kathryn and my CASA Volunteer, Katie, taught me how to budget and go grocery shopping for myself. They also connected me to food pantries and thrift stores to stretch my budget and taught me a lot of independent living skills. I feel a lot more positive energy now thanks to them.”
The basic ingredients of financial stability are helping Jacob connect to his future goals.
“Now that I have aged out at age 21, things are better,” says Jacob. “I can go places by choice, instead of the state making me. I can be myself and I am more in control of my situation. I’m working part-time right now, and am overjoyed that Kathryn is making it possible for me to go to Job Corps for training as a culinary professional.”
“My goal is to finish my culinary arts certification and get my GED and then my Associates degree in business. That’s a ‘big man step’ that will make it possible for me to work anywhere.”
With his own dreams now coming into focus, Jacob is also feeling inspired to give back. “CASA has been a great learning experience. I love Katie and Kathryn! I would someday like to mentor teenagers the way they have helped me.”