By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – For children who grow up in the foster care system, support and stability are often difficult to find and even harder to maintain, says Carla Owens, director of communications for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative, a national foundation dedicated to helping youth transition from foster care.
The Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, a joint venture between Owens’ group and the Department of Human Services (DHS), seeks to change that.
Since 2003, the program has helped youth ages 14 to 21 make the transition from foster care to independence. It’s now active in 30 counties, with roughly 500 youth involved.
This year, it plans to expand into 10 more counties: Barry, Eaton, Chippewa, Luce, Gogebic, Ontonagon, Ingham, Marquette, Oakland and St. Clair.
The program started in Michigan in Wayne County and the northwestern Lower Peninsula and could eventually serve all 83 counties, Owens said.
Rich Miketinac, director of the Marquette County DHS, said, “It’s going to be a very good thing for older kids in foster care who are aging out of the foster care system and who don’t have a family to return to.”
The county is in the early stages of developing its program but is already targeting 10 to 12 youth, Miketinac said.
Foster children often struggle when they turn 18. Many don’t graduate from college or even high school, and a large percentage have trouble finding work, according to a study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago.
The initiative seeks to create a network of resources to help them.
Youth who choose to participate undergo eight hours of financial literacy training, for example, and then the program helps them open two bank accounts.
One is for personal use and the other is an “individual development account.” The state matches deposits in the development account up to a $1,000 per year for large expenses like housing, education or transportation.
Owens said, “Whereas a parent might sit down and say, here’s how you manage a checkbook and they will even allow them to make mistakes, as everyone does, a lot of people in foster care don’t have that experience.”
Shannon Brower, a DHS consultant from Harbor Light, said that the program focuses on financial literacy because foster children typically aren’t taught basic money management skills and often get in trouble as a result.
The program also works to empower youth.
Owens said, “It’s one thing for adults to sit in a room and determine what’s best for a young person, but we believe that young person needs to be at the table, helping make the decision.”
In addition, countywide youth leader boards allow participants to discuss the problems they face while in foster care and as they age out of it and how they can resolve them.
They give youth the opportunity to build relationships with one another and work towards changes in the foster care system.
The program also builds community partnerships, including ones that help youth find jobs or give discounts at local shops.
Paula Young, manager of the Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative said, “We know that the best way to not only engage youth but also make the most difference is engaging their communities. So those two aspects really go hand in hand.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.