Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Overcoming Hurdles to Employment for NY Foster Youth

Job Hurdle After Foster Care.
De Avila, Joseph. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 2011.

Even as the unemployment rate for New York City teens remains stubbornly high, a new report finds one group of young people faces especially tough odds: the city's foster children.

Only about half the young adults who leave the city's foster system are able to find work, estimates the report that examines joblessness among current and former foster children. Young people still in the system also struggle more than their peers to find jobs, the report by the Center for an Urban Future found.

"There is a lack of both a preparatory system that simulates and substitutes for what kids get from their parents and a lack of a safety net for young adults going out in the work force," said Tom Hilliard, the report's author.

Cordale Manning, 19, spoke to a manager at Champs Sports in Times Square who told him to submit an online application. Mr. Manning was 12 when he and his older brother were placed into foster care. Since then, he has lived in five different homes.

Prior to the recession, the unemployment rate for all teens in New York City between the ages of 16 and 19 was just under 20%, according to the report by the Manhattan-based think tank. By the end of 2010, that rate shot up to 40%.

Neither the city nor foster-care agencies track how many teens and young adults in the system find employment, Mr. Hilliard said. But his research among foster-care professionals in New York appears to show that about half the 1,000 young people who age out of the system every year, typically at age 21, find jobs.

As of 2010, there were about 16,000 children in the city's foster system, and about 2,000 of them were older than 18, according to the report.

The report comes amid a $127 million initiative launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to aid Latino and black men between the ages of 16 and 24. The three-year program will include mentoring and literacy services and efforts to boost employment.

Cordale Manning, 19 years old, said he thought having a stable foster home in the South Bronx instead of bouncing from home to home would help him hold onto a job. Instead, he was laid off earlier this year after two months stocking groceries at a Manhattan store.

Mr. Manning was 12 when he and his older brother were placed into foster care. Since then, he has lived in five different homes.

After losing his job, he's applied to about 10 retail positions and hasn't been called for any interviews.

"When I turn 21, I'm worried about if I'm going to be able to hold my own," Mr. Manning said. He's enrolled in vocational school learning how to repair computers. "I'm really kind of anxious about it because I don't know what's going to happen."

Mr. Hilliard said even children with stable foster homes often have missed out on the years of financial, educational and familial support that readies a young person for a working life and can shore them up during their first unsteady attempts.

He said the city Administration for Children's Services, which manages most aspects of the child welfare system in New York City, has spent much of its efforts in recent years on family reunification and preventive services, he said.

Mr. Hilliard called that mission vital but said older foster children are no longer a top priority of the agency. He pointed to the agency's elimination of the Office of Youth Development in 2008, which worked mainly with older foster children to help them ease into independent life.

"ACS will continue to collaborate with the public and private sectors to make stable employment a reality for our young people," said an ACS spokeswoman in a written statement. "Through the Mayor's Young Men's Initiative, for example, the city is expanding evidence-based employment programs...These programs have been successful in helping young people, particularly those with limited or no work experience, connect to work and increase their earnings."

The economic downturn has made employment in New York increasingly competitive for young people who rely on retail and food service jobs, said Courtney Hawkins of F.E.G.S. Health and Human Services Systems, which runs a program that prepares foster youths for the work force. Many of those jobs now require high-school diplomas or GEDs, while many of the working-age youths whom her group assists have fifth-grade reading levels, she said.

"You end up seeing 20- and 21-year-olds who have never had a job before," Ms. Hawkins said.

Emotional problems and anger issues that affect some foster children mean they end up getting fired once they do become employed, said Jane Golden of the Children's Aid Society, which provides foster care and other services.

"There is no quick fix for fractured relationship-building skills," Ms. Golden said. "It's a long haul."

Marcia Wilson, 21, recently aged out of the foster care system and credits her good attitude for the success she's had.

"Every teen that I've known, they had jobs," Ms. Wilson said. "It's a matter of keeping the jobs before you age out of care."

Ms. Wilson says she has had influential social workers who have helped her along the way. She also wants to be a good role model for her younger brothers who are 19 and 18. Neither have jobs, but both are still in high school, she said.

Later this month, Ms. Wilson will start a six-month fellowship working at an investment bank. She also recently got her own apartment in Harlem and is enrolled in community college and wants to get a degree in political science.

Kevin Peterson, 20, of Staten Island, is preparing to move out on his own in January, when he turns 21. He has an apartment lined up through the New York City Housing Authority but worries about finding a job. Earlier this year, he was fired from a pet store where he worked for three months after he says he mistakenly stocked a product that had expired.

"I always had a dream of having a job that I can stick with," said Mr. Peterson, who has been in foster care since he was 11. "I'm just having trouble right now."

Mr. Peterson eventually wants to become a firefighter. But now he's been applying to retail jobs to have steady income by the time he moves out of his foster parents' home.

"I'm going to need a job," Mr. Peterson said. "I don't want to have to live off public assistance."

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