More than one-fourth of the 1,639 youths who aged out of the Oklahoma child welfare system during the years 2009 through 2013 went on to experience some form of homelessness.
That's the sad finding of a new study by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Office of Planning and Research Statistics.
At a time when many 18-year-olds are looking forward to college or joining the workforce with support from their families, many of the children who age out of the state system are trying to figure out how to survive.
Jennifer Boyer, programs supervisor for DHS' Oklahoma Independent Living program, said the agency has some programs designed to ease the transition to independence, but "we just don't have enough."
"Housing is very important for our youth," Boyer said. "For them to be able to get a job, to stay in school, they need to have a place to live. So we are looking at those numbers and trying to figure out what we can do to help our youth be more stable when they get ready to leave care."
The statistics aren't all bad.
Jacqueline McDaniel, program supervisor for DHS' Road to Independence Network, said only about 6 percent of children in DHS care age out of the system. The other 94 percent are either reunited with their parents, successfully adopted or achieve some other form of permanent placement, she said.
That's better than the national statistics that show about 11 percent of children age out of state systems without achieving placement. Data shows the likelihood of becoming homeless is greatly reduced for children who are adopted or achieve some other form of permanent placement, she said.
Reason for concern
But there is reason for concern for those who age out of the system.
Using a $720,000 federal planning grant to identify youth most at risk of homelessness and other poor outcomes, DHS tracked the 1,639 youth who aged out of the Oklahoma system from 2009 to 2013 and found that 415 self-reported experiencing some form of homelessness.
The actual number may be higher. McDaniel said DHS arrived at its 415 number by gathering data from entities the youth interacted with after aging out — including DHS, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Affairs, National Resource Center for Youth Services, the National Youth in Transition Database and Youth Services of Tulsa. Researchers combed the data and identified instances in which the youth self-reported being homeless.
"It's whatever their perception of homelessness is, so it could be couch surfing, it could be living on the streets, it could be living in a shelter," she said. "By couch surfing I mean that person doesn't really have a home. They just sleep on friends' couches."
McDaniel said her agency did a second study that attempted to track 2,643 youth who were age 14 to 17 and in DHS custody in 2009. That study found that 16 percent of them went on to experience some form of homelessness, she said.
Of the 16 percent who experienced homelessness, 74 percent had aged out of the system, while 4 percent had been adopted and 16 percent had been reunified with their families or guardians, she said.
This past week, DHS officials met with Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency officials to discuss establishing a program that would set aside a certain number of housing vouchers to provide rental assistance for youth who are getting ready to age out of the system, Boyer said.
DHS has an existing help line called "Yes, I Can," that youth who have aged out of the system can call to be assigned a case manager, she said. The case manager can connect them with a variety of resources and help them obtain financial assistance for things like rental assistance and medical bills, she said.
Within the "Yes, I Can" program, there is a graduated rental assistance program available that starts out paying the majority of a youth's rent, but gradually decreases the percentage of rental assistance over the course of a year, she said.
While still in state care, children are encouraged to gain employment and social workers try to make sure they have their birth certificates and Social Security cards, said Jennifer Benefiel, program director of DHS' Independent Living program. Individualized plans to prepare youth for adulthood are developed when they are 16.
And DHS recently entered into a promising program with Youth Villages to offer a program called "LifeSet" to 17-year-olds, Benefiel said.
The program is aimed specifically at preparing children for the transition to adulthood. Workers meet with the youth two or three times a week and help them do things like fill out college applications, visit college campuses and obtain housing. The assistance continues beyond age 18.
DHS now has an application pending for a three-year federal grant that would provide $670,000 a year to test and implement strategies to eliminate homelessness and improve outcomes for youth ages 14-21 in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The study would utilize a community engagement model to work with volunteer leaders and local social services entities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
In Oklahoma City, DHS would seek to involve entities such as Northcare, Variety Care and the Department of Rehabilitation Services. In Tulsa, entities like Mental Health Association Oklahoma and Youth Services of Tulsa would be asked to participate, with a goal of developing a continuum of services to help children who age out of the system transition to adulthood without experiencing homelessness and similar traumas, she said.