On Monday, June 6, 2016 and Wednesday, June 8, 2016, articles by Ryan Dailey featuring local youth and our program appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.
The first article describes the processes and obstacles of aging out of foster care and the anxiety felt by transitioning youth. It includes quotes from Circuit Director Deborah Moore and mentions our First Beginnings project.
The second article features interviews with five former foster children who each describe their circumstances and the hardships that they experienced.
Both of the articles are presented below in case you missed them. Thank you to Ryan Dailey and the Tallahassee Democrat for sharing our program with their readers.
Just days before the long Memorial Day weekend, representatives from Guardian ad Litem and Capital City Youth Services brought together five young men and women who have either aged out of the foster care system or have gone through bitter legal battles concerning parents' rights.
The two organizations partnered for a number of reasons. GAL, which provides legal services and mentoring to foster children, and CCYS, a youth shelter and outreach program, both were promoting programs that help at-risk youth.
The principal reason for meeting, however, was to highlight some of the often overlooked aspects of what life is like for teens and young adults following their emancipation from the Foster Care system.
"Our program wanted to find a way to fix something that bothered us," said Deborah Moore, a circuit director with GAL. "Youth would leave a foster home or group home, go out on their own and go into an unfurnished apartment and not have a bed, furniture or things to cook with."
Moore spoke about the First Beginnings Project, which was put on by GAL in partnership with volunteers from Killearn United Methodist Church.
"Sometimes they would just sleep on an air mattress in the middle of the floor. We said we have to stop that," Moore said.
Donations from the community and partner organizations have helped the volunteers set up a "store" where the youth can take their pick of household wares and essential items – all, of course, at no cost to them.
"Dressers, student desks, vacuums, irons, ironing boards, dishes, toilet paper, toiletries," Moore said, nearly running out of breath listing the numerous items available. "Anything to make their apartment feel more like a home."
Talking through it
The event was structured like a discussion panel, with each youth getting as much time as needed to share some of the unanticipated roadblocks to successful independent living that they and many of their peers face. The problems go deeper than simply lack of household items.
"The reason for my first eviction was because of mental illnesses I didn't know I had before. I was never in a situation where anyone would question what I was doing or how I would feel," said 20-year-old Taylor Ballard, who has received services and mentoring from Guardian ad Litem.
Ballard has been at her apartment for a year and three months. However, she feels limited in her ability to move elsewhere because of past evictions.
Without a guarantor or family members to provide any financial backing, young adults like Ballard can find themselves in danger of being homeless.
Not having personal identification cards, drivers' licenses, even birth certificates and other important documents that are typically maintained by children's parents is often a burden on young adults who have found themselves on their own without a support system.
Permit and drivers' license
Florida laws have been adjusted in the past few years, because of the advocacy of people like Moore who work with teens and young adults. Fees associated with acquiring a license and permit have been waived for foster teens. They're also eligible for free driving instruction from a professional in some cases, which Moore insists is often necessary.
Erin Bor, a mentor with CCYS' Transitional Living Program, talked about some of the recurring difficulties she hears from teens. Two of the teens at the event, Jawan Moore and Kharizma Bryant-Jackson, both live at the Transitional Living Program house with other 16- to 20-year-olds who are preparing to launch out on their own.
"The biggest issue is the guarantor, because even if you have someone in your life, they may not be willing to do that. Or, they may not have the money or the credit score," Bor said.
Not surprisingly, said Bor, children from unstable homes simply need the same types of motivation as children from tight-knit families.
"Encouragement, singing to people who don't want to wake up in the morning. I'm a personal alarm clock," Bor said.
"It's really things like talking every week and saying 'What are your goals this week? If you have this long-term goal of living on your own, what are the little things you have to do to get there?"
Applying for a job, writing a resume and interviewing are the kind of tasks that Bor the proud "helicopter mom" helps CCYS residents with.
"I'm very fortunate that I get to be that support system for a lot of the kids that have moved out," she said, "but there are so many challenges."
Support organizations that support foster youth
Guardian ad Litem: www.guardianadlitem.org
Capital City Youth Services: www.ccys.org
Children's Home Society: www.chsfl.org
Big Bend Community Based Care: www.bigbendcbc.org
Boys Town of North Florida: www.boystown.org/locations/north-florida
Want to help Children's Home Society with their 50 in 50 Campaign or learn more?
Visit Children's Home Society's Coffee Talk, every Thursday at their office, 1801 Miccosukee Commons Drive. Sessions are held at noon and 5:30 p.m., and are free to attend.
"Me and my mom, we were not getting along. For me at a young age, that just gave me a view on life that a 6-year-old shouldn't have."
Dealing with the mental stressors at home were not easy to overcome growing up.
"She was trying to help me, but she wasn't able to help me in the way I needed her to," she said of her mother.
Bryant-Jackson tried to escape her home situation.
"I spent most of my time jumping from place to place, I spent my high school years running away," she said. Her mother, looking for a solution, took her to the Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare Behavioral Health Center.
"Me being there helped me, but it also kind of damaged me because I felt I was crazy."
When she first moved into the CCYS transitional program, she said there were some doubts built-in from prior experiences.
"When you've been moved from so many facilities, it's kind of hard for you to transition. My thought was, 'How long am I going to stay here? Is this going to be permanent, or am I just going to be off to the next one."
Bryant-Jackson found support in both peers and adults.
"I needed someone to give me emotional support" Bryant-Jackson said.
When Bryant-Jackson received her GED, she said her mother "was so proud, and welcomed me with open arms." The two continue to build on a positive relationship.
"When I turned 18, I had been in about five placements already," said Zhang, a 20-year-old who is now a third-year criminology major and computer information technology minor at Florida A&M.
"My last foster mom, we had the closest bond that I had ever made with a foster parent. Shortly afterward, my dad came home from prison and I moved back in with him."
However, Zhang and her father's "rocky relationship" proved to be problematic living under one roof, and soon she found herself having to move back in with a former Guardian ad Litem mentor.
Finding work and a steady income became the next obstacle to independent living.
"One of my biggest challenges were getting my documents. In foster care, I never had an original birth certificate."
This made it a struggle for Anna to get a job when she reached working age and began to need to provide for herself. She said employers are not always patient when they are interviewing multiple candidates.
"This is the real world, no one's going to be patient about hiring someone for a position."
Zhang said having limited personal connections after aging out of foster care made things more difficult.
"Most children who live with their families have a mom, dad, aunt or uncle they can call on when they have problems or financial trouble," Zhang said. She was not always so fortunate.
Things came to a boil when she found out a roommate had thrown away her FAMU acceptance letter – a physical symbol of her accomplishments to that point. The ensuing dispute resulted in a phone call to police.
Around 11 p.m. the night before she got on the road to drive to her new university, she was put in the back of a police car and taken to jail. She was released on her own recognizance when police found she had no record of ever being in trouble with the law.
"I got home at 4 a.m. and packed the rest of the night. I just thought 'In the morning I'm getting on the road, and that's it.' But all this stemmed from my dad kicking me out."
Anna is set to graduate as a Rattler next fall.
"When I finally got into a home where they actually cared about me, I was 17," Ballard said.
She graduated high school a year early, and despite being urged by her foster parent to stay in town for another year, Ballard decided to strike out on her own and relocate to Orlando.
Being isolated in a new place without many connections was taxing on the recent high school grad. It led to a mental breakdown, followed by a diagnosis of several mental disorders Ballard never knew she had.
Her "meltdown" in Orlando caused her to be evicted from an apartment complex, making it extremely difficult to find housing when she returned to Tallahassee.
"I had an issue trying to find a place to live because many places don't accept your evictions," Ballard said. "Even if I did find somewhere, am I going to be sleeping in the kitchen? Am I going to be sleeping in the bathtub?"
"I got to the point where I'd like to be able to prove to people I really changed, I've matured into an adult," Ballard said. And she did just that.
Ballard has been at her current placement for a year and three months now, never missing a bill or dropping a responsibility. She also benefitted from the Guardian ad Litem's First Beginnings Project.
"When I was moving into my new placement, I wasn't expecting to move in the amount of time in which I did, plus I couldn't afford to furnish my whole house by myself. So it really did save me," Ballard said.
However, even with the relative success she's enjoyed recently, Ballard still feels limited in her ability to move onward and upward to better housing based on her past mistakes.
"I feel like I cannot move anywhere else based on these evictions," she said.
Ballard continues to work at her dream of becoming a professional model.
"After I aged out (of foster care), I moved into an apartment with just my bed."
Schad purchased a mattress from someone he knew for $20, but it was the only possession he had until his biological father was able to bring some furniture.
Living in Panama City, Schad developed some toxic friendships and was beginning to struggle with motivation to pull himself out of the situation.
"I didn't really have any self-motivation. I don't know if it could've been helped without me trying to help myself. I figured I would have somebody to try and put me in check, but I didn't."
After Schad was arrested last June, he quickly moved to Tallahassee to get away from Panama City and cut ties with questionable connections.
"No one saying, 'Oh, you're doing good and I see your efforts.' So I found out that I had to build my own self-motivation."
Finding a new apartment in Tallahassee and hitting the job hunt were Schad's first priorities. However, finding a guarantor was a serious roadblock.
"I had to depend on things like Craigslist ads to find a place, and it got me to run into some bad people. That got me to where I am now, which is homeless," Schad said.
During his year in Tallahassee, Schad has been in five placements in the last year. None of them have been more stable than a six-month stay.
However, Schad was hired on to a new job last week and is eager to begin making the money necessary to live comfortably on his own.
"I never had a happy childhood, from the age of three it was in and out of court with my mom and my dad," said TCC student Jawan Moore.
Moore, though he has never been in the foster care system, was involved in a fierce custody battle as a child, which made his living conditions unstable at times.
For seven years during his childhood, Moore said, he had believed his mother was trying to have him taken away from his dad.
However, Moore found out later that there were different reasons for his family being torn apart. His two older sisters, eager to leave the home before age 18, told the Department of Children and Families that their mother was being physically abusive.
Having to be away from his mother was hard on Moore.
"I was always the twin that wanted to go back to our mom," said Moore, who also has a twin brother.
After finding out the truth, Moore said he began to view his father as a hero. Moore said his father took all of the kids in and took care of them himself, before remarrying and taking in eight more children from his new wife.
"I would fight with the sheriff. I would tell the judge, 'If I can't go with my mom, I'll prove to you I can go to her.'"
A series of attempts to run away from home caused a rift between Moore and his father.
"That was really a traumatic event for me. And when I sat down and thought about it, I realized the things that I did could have been prevented, and handled in a positive way."
Moore has shifted his life to be all about positivity. A star student at TCC, Moore was dressed impeccably in a suit on his way to a school event on the day of the discussion.
A volunteer who is very involved in his church, Destiny Center, Moore is a mentor within the church's flag football program and also teaches children at a local pre-school.
He said that, often times, people see his success and don't realize he has come from such a difficult background.
Receiving help from CCYS counseling, Moore said he learned more effective ways to open up and talk about his emotions. He has since mended his relationship with his father, and the two talk on a regular basis.
"I wanted my dad to be in my life. I called him one day and told him everything I was sorry for. And the one thing he told me is, he was never mad at me. He just wanted me to sit down and talk to him, father to son."