Sokhom Mao is being honored as a Champion of Change for Foster Care
I entered foster care at the age of 12, and quickly became worried about where I would live after exiting care. Thousands of foster youth, like me, also leave care with great uncertainty of their housing situation. And, of those that secure housing, many are not equipped to take care of themselves when they age out.
Youth transitioning out of foster care into adulthood often struggle just to find a place to live. Empirical research shows they experience marginal and unstable housing, as well as higher rates of homelessness than the general population of transitional aged youth. And, with housing prices increasing significantly in recent years in many urban areas of the U.S. foster youth have very limited choices. For the foster youth aging out of the child welfare system each year, housing is “the make it or break it” deal.
Thankfully, the Fostering Connections to Success Act of 2008, H.R. 6893 gave states the option to allow youth to stay in foster care until age 21. In 2012, California extended foster care services (under Assembly Bill 12) with the goal to help youth stay connected to services, and to encourage a more successful transition to adulthood. Now they have additional support finding consistent and safe housing, educational and employment training opportunities, and an improved ability to make permanent connections with caring adults.
As an older teen in foster care I lived in a scattered-site transitional housing program with Bay Area Youth Centers (BAYC) in Hayward, California. I learned a lot of skills at BAYC and am so pleased that in 2012, under Assembly Bill 12, the program became the first licensed Transitional Housing Placement Plus Foster Care provider in the state of California, which allowed them serve up to 100 foster youth in their own apartments between ages 18 and 20 in Northern California. Preliminary reviews are already showing the immense impact of the program—100 percent of youth were residing in stable housing 2-7 years after exiting the program.
In 2005, I left foster care and attended San Francisco State University as one of the first students in the SF State Guardian Scholars Program (GSP), a program to assist undergraduate students from foster care. GSP provides clinical case management, academic support, employment and internship services, counseling, leadership opportunities, and more. But, most importantly the program and university offer year-round on-campus housing. San Francisco State University was the first public university to provide year-round housing to all of its students from foster care, addressing housing instability during the winter and summer breaks. And, off-campus students receive a summer housing stipend from GSP. As a result of its extensive services, GSP has a 90 percent retention rate and a 75 percent graduation rate, compared to the national average of 1-3 percent graduation rate for foster youth and 69 percent rate for the general population of students. The program has helped more than 160 foster youth in the last 10 years and is a non-profit located right on campus.
I know how difficult aging out of foster care can be. Many foster youth still experience homelessness, incarceration, mental health challenges, unplanned pregnancies, and unemployment at disheartening rates. We can change these statistics—and give foster youth a real shot at success—by expanding funding for outcome-driven programs like SF State GSP and BAYC.
I am hopeful we will look towards creating new legislation and funding for programs that will enable the 23,000 foster youth who age out annually to benefit from the support of successful organizations, so these young people can aim high and achieve their own ambitions in adulthood.
Sokhom Mao is the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Commissioner and the Public Education Specialist of the California Social Work Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a graduate of San Francisco State University.