By Annika Lile
Two hundred dollars and a handshake. This is what welcomed Dennys Valle, at the age of 17, into “adulthood” when he left the foster care system.
“I felt like an alien out in this new world,” said Dennys, a peer partner housing liaison at Hillsides’ Youth Moving On (YMO) program for youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood. Dennys also lived in YMO’s transitional housing program.
Emancipation typically has a positive connotation because by definition it means to free from restraint or influence. The word is also associated with the end of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was intended to help free slaves from the shackles of oppression and abuse.
Yet, the word has taken on a whole new meaning for individuals in the foster care system. Emancipation from the foster care system means that a young adult, between the ages of 16 and 21, depending on their situation, who was previously receiving foster care, is relinquished from the care of the government. While some may think it is important for these youth to be out on their own, this is the opposite of what they need. Individuals in the foster care system have dealt with loss, abuse and traumatic life experiences. While in the foster care system, they have often bounced around from home to home and fail to form attachments with adults. Once emancipated, because they don’t have a core support system, they often have no one to turn to and few resources.
Victor Pinzon, a former Youth Moving On youth and employee, also experienced emancipation first-hand. He describes the mix of emotions he felt during this time as “stress, fear, loneliness, confusion and lack of support.” Victor has since gone on to graduate from college and create a successful career for himself in the field of social work, however his personal experiences reveal the terrible vulnerability of emancipated youth.
Youth leaving the foster care system are at a high risk for homelessness and other challenges. According to Foster Focus magazine, “within 18 months of emancipation 40-50% of foster youth become homeless, [and] nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.”
Unemployment is also high in this population. According to Children’s Bureau’s most recent statistics, in 2016, 20,531 youths were emancipated in the nation, yet only 52% of these individuals were employed by age 21. And when they do find jobs, they are usually lower paying than other youth their age. In addition, other studies show that youth formerly in foster care face higher rates of pregnancy and incarceration.
Hillsides’ YMO program was created in 2006 as an anecdote to these issues. YMO provides youth formerly in foster care with affordable transitional and permanent housing. It also maintains a robust work force education program that provides youth who graduate from a workforce curriculum with paid internships and jobs. In addition, the YMO Peer Resource Center is a one-stop shop of resources and services for youth ages 16 through 25. The Center offers hygiene products, individual therapy and support groups, life skills training, bus tokens and coupons, school supplies and tutoring, food and cooking classes, and computer access. It also offers youth unique experiences such as walks around the Rose Bowl, cooking classes, movie days, yoga sessions, barbeques, and even salsa dancing (Victor himself used to teach the classes).
While YMO can’t solve all the problems that come with emancipation from the foster care system, it has helped hundreds of youth create independent lives. Dennys, for example, may have left the foster care system with only a little money and a good-luck handshake, but at YMO, his post foster-care life fell into place. “YMO gave me a safe space to live, taught me how to open a checking account and budget my money, and helped me get my first job,” he said. “Before, I didn’t know the meaning of the word support, but here, I finally received it and was able to discover strengths I didn’t even know I had.”
To learn more about the YMO Program, please visit www.youthmovingon.org or call 626-765-6010.
Annika is an intern in Hillsides’ advancement department. A graduate from Arcadia High School, she is majoring in integrated marketing communications at Pepperdine University. She intends to use her collegiate education to pursue a meaningful career that assists others in need.