Family and Children's
23, No. 1
Reflections on Promoting Independence
An Interview with Resource Parents Tony and Wanda Douglas
Youth in foster care face a unique set of challenges as they transition to adulthood. To learn more about what it takes to support youth during this critical time, Practice Notes spoke with Tony and Wanda Douglas, veteran North Carolina foster parents who excel at promoting independence in youth in care. The Douglases have been foster parents for 17 years. During that time, they fostered over 100 children and adopted four. They also train foster parents on helping youth reach self-sufficiency.
What do agencies and social workers need to know about youth who are transitioning to adulthood?
We need to recognize that their first priority is to get out of the system. The only thing they want is their freedom, which to them means not having anyone tell them what to do. They don't understand the responsibilities associated with their freedom. Many youth end up homeless or in jail within 24 months of exiting care.
The first 12 to 18 months after they leave care is about survival. They need income now so they can achieve stability. Once they have that, they'll be able to focus on long-term goals such as going to college, learning a trade, etc.
Youth have skills, but they might be hidden. Find out what they are really interested in and explore how they can use this to earn income. Think outside the box. What can they do right now, with what they have, to pay their rent and meet their concrete needs?
We cared for a youth who enjoyed doing hair and makeup. She created a YouTube channel and made money doing video tutorials!
What are the main skills youth need as they transition to adulthood?
First, they've got to have tangible skills. They need to know how to find housing, manage their money, and find and maintain employment. They also need to be able to make the right decisions, communicate well with others, and handle peer pressure.
Youth in foster care really struggle with decision-making. Adults have made most of their decisions for their entire lives. We have to prepare them to make decisions that will increase their likelihood of success.
What are some of your "lessons learned" from working with youth as they transition to adulthood?
We have to let them become young adults. They don't want to be treated like a child. Step back and give them freedom to grow and make choices for themselves. They need to practice making decisions in a safe, supportive place and to deal with the natural consequences. This is what North Carolina's Foster Care 18-21 program is for.
Normalize that they will make mistakes, and that this is okay. Ultimately, this process helps them learn, grow, and become more independent.
Another big lesson learned to keep in mind is, just because they are 18 doesn't mean they are ready for adulthood. We all mature at different ages. Meet young people where they are. If we push them into adulthood too soon, we set them up to fail.
Do a strengths and needs assessment with the youth. (For more on this, see this article.) Follow up with an individualized, developmentally appropriate plan to help them become successful. Obtain and use the youth's input throughout this process. Getting their buy-in and ownership is essential.
Focus on concrete, practical skills--does the youth know how to budget, save money, shop from a list, go to the doctor, search and apply for jobs and housing, pay rent, etc.? Help youth develop and practice these skills before they enter the real world.
Encourage youth to open bank accounts and save money. For example, with their agreement, set up an arrangement where they pay $100 a month in "rent" to foster parents, with the understanding that youth will get that money back once they find an apartment and have to pay a deposit.
Help youth obtain documents they will need (state ID, driver's license, Social Security card, original birth certificate, etc.). Make digital copies.
Ensure the youth has a support system in place (formal and informal) before they exit care.
Start preparing youth early--long before age 18!
Sources: Courtney, et al., 2016a, 2016b; Pecora, et al., 2003
On Their Way
On Their Way is an instructional video and guidebook that show caregivers what they can do on a daily basis to help guide youth of any age to plan for their educational and career goals. The guidebook provides discussion points for meals, family activities, and advanced understanding of adolescent development. The curriculum takes caregivers through eight topics: education, career interests, decision making, finances, getting help, staying healthy, housing, and staying connected. It is available free through the on-demand courses page of fosteringNC.org, the NC Division of Social Services' learning portal for resource parents.
References for this and other articles in this issue