Below the Line: Tennessee-based YVLifeset helps former foster care youth find success as adults

'We don't just let young people disappear'

As part of WCPO's ongoing coverage of childhood poverty, we are profiling organizations in other communities that are helping children and families through struggles that people here face, too. This is the second in a series of three stories about what is working elsewhere and what the needs are locally. Click here to read the first story in the series.

CINCINNATI — Maleek Rhaheem was only 5 when he saw the police drag his screaming mother out of their home.

He was 9 when his drug-dealing dad got shot to death.

He was 14 when his grandma died, and that's when he wound up in foster care.

"There was nobody else to take me," he said.

VIDEO | Watch two young adults talk about aging out of the foster care system in the media player above.

Suddenly Rhaheem was part of Ohio's overburdened child-welfare system. And as scary as it is for kids like him to leave their families — no matter how broken they are — it can be even more frightening when it's time to leave foster care.

It's a process known as "aging out."

"If you don't have anyplace to go, you start doing drugs. You start doing all these crazy things," said Rhaheem, who is now 19 and left the foster care system last year to start a life with his boyfriend. "If that would happen to me, I wouldn't know what to do."

In 2015 in Hamilton County alone, 84 former foster youth aged out. That's down from 116 in 2010 because of the emphasis county officials have placed on helping teens reunite with family or find adoptive homes before they leave the system, said Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County's Department of Job & Family Services.

Maleek Rhaheem, 19, emancipated from foster care last year. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Hamilton County JFS, with the help of local nonprofit organizations such as Lighthouse Youth Services, has for years been a leader when it comes to helping former foster youth make a smooth transition into the adult world.

But the reality is there are not enough resources throughout Greater Cincinnati to help them all.

"There's a lot more that we could be doing," said Chris Bochenek, vice president and program manager at the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./ U.S. Bank Foundation. "Some of these kids do tend to make it, but they're doing it on their own. And they're not getting any support whatsoever. They're couch surfing. And that population is going through the roof."

Across the U.S., young people aging out of foster care have a far less certain future than their peers who have never been in the system. Researchers at Chapin Hall, a child and family research center at the University of Chicago, found that young adults formerly in foster care were far more likely to be unemployed than the general population. The young men also were far more likely to be arrested, and young women were far more likely to become pregnant at a young age.

Federal, state and local government agencies are struggling to help them.

A program called YVLifeset has found success with its approach.

'A Very Intensive Model'

Founded in 1999, YVLifeset is a program of Youth Villages, a Tennessee-based nonprofit organization that works with troubled children and their families.

YVLifeset focuses on working with youth aging out of foster care and those who were in juvenile justice custody as teenagers. The program helps them identify their goals, find stable housing, begin college, find jobs and manage their money. It also works to make sure young people have health insurance and get the mental health services they need.

When possible, YVLifeset helps former foster youth reconcile with their biological family members. And, especially when that's not possible, the program helps them build new relationships with adults they can trust.

YVLifeset does all that through specialists who work closely with the former foster youth, said Mary Lee, YVLifeset's national coordinator and a former foster youth herself.

Mary Lee

Each YVLifeset specialist has a caseload that is limited to about eight young people, she said, and they're often recent college graduates who are just a few years older than the young people they are helping.

"They're responsible for that young person's success," she said.

The specialists are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and meet with each young person face-to-face at least weekly, Lee said.

"We don't just let young people disappear," she said. "If a young person misses a session, the specialist is calling, texting, going by the apartment, work or school. We take responsibility for making sure the young person stays in services."

There's evidence that the YVLifeset approach works. The social policy research organization MDRC and the University of Chicago's Mark Courtney released a study in May 2015 that found the YVLifeset program had a positive impact on youth who aged out of foster care or were in juvenile justice custody as teens.

The study found that youth involved in the YVLifeset program:

• Earned an average of $600 per year more than youth in the study's "control" group;

• Experienced less "housing instability" and "economic hardship;"

• And had statistically lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

Most of the young adults served through YVLifeset live in Tennessee, Lee said. Other locations include North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Oregon and Florida. The program also has a big presence in Massachusetts, where GreenLight Fund helped it launch in 2008.

GreenLight Fund invests in innovative nonprofit organizations to address unmet community needs. It expanded into Cincinnati last year.

"Youth Villages has a very intensive model," said Kate Barrett, associate director of GreenLight Fund's national portfolio. "The other thing is the amount of data they collect. From day one, they have been collecting data."

That has helped the organization build on strategies that work for youth and eliminate those that don't, Barrett said.

The services aren't cheap. It costs about $10,000 to give each young person in the program intensive support for between seven to nine months.

A YVLifeset specialist, left, meets with a young man who aged out of foster care.

YVLifeset has an annual budget of $12 million. About 40 percent of that is public funding with the rest coming from private donors.

But a national study from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative dated May 2013 determined that investing money to help former foster youth could save billions of dollars in the long run.

If young people aging out of foster care were involved in the criminal justice system at the same rate as the rest of the population, for example, the savings to society would be more than $5 billion over their lifetimes, the study found.

Changing State Law

In Greater Cincinnati, Lighthouse Youth Services provides some of the same supports that YVLifeset does.

A major difference is that Lighthouse owns and operates some of the housing where former Hamilton County foster care youth live.

"Could we use that model in Hamilton County? Yeah, absolutely," said Bob Mecum, president and CEO of Lighthouse. "We think it's a terrific model of engagement. We'll have to figure out over the long-term if the funding is available."

Money isn't the only problem.

In Ohio, most youth who age out of foster care must leave the system at the age of 18. Child welfare advocates have been pushing since 2014 to extend foster care services to the age of 21 in Ohio.

Related: Law aims to help youth with 'no safety net'

House Bill 50 and Senate Bill 240 would extend services and would allow youth to re-enter the system if they choose to emancipate — or age out — at 18 and then realize that they need more support after all.

"It's clear to me that the Senate is going to consider these bills, take them very seriously and hopefully pass them into law in a matter of weeks or months," said Mark Mecum, executive director of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies in Columbus. "So many people support it and want to see it passed soon."

Weir said she supports the measure as long as there is new programming that helps young people become more successful and as long as there is more funding provided to help pay for those programs.

Currently, the state of Ohio provides only 9 percent of the money that Hamilton County spends for child welfare services.

Youth aren't forced to leave the system in Hamilton County after they turn 18. The Department of Job & Family services uses federal funding and local levy dollars to continue to provide support and services to young people until they're 21.

But there are youth who are simply tired of being part of the child welfare system and want to leave it as soon as they can, Weir said.

That's how Dominique Springs felt.

'I Remember Being Stuck'

Springs, who is now 25, entered foster care when she was 15. She wasn’t getting along with her mom at the time. She didn't know her father. And after physical abuse occurred, Springs was removed from her mother's home, she said.

Springs spent time in two different foster homes before she started living on her own at age 17 with support from the county.

"It was tough. I knew how to wash dishes and stuff. I was OK there," said Springs, who is now events and marketing manager at Kennedy Heights Arts Center. "It was just a culture shock. It just being you."

Dominique Springs at the Kennedy Heights Art Center where she works in marketing. Emily Maxwell | WCPO.

Springs was 19 and had started college at Mount St. Joseph University — known at the time as the College of Mount St. Joseph — when she emancipated and was completely independent.

"Being in the system just does something to you, and that was plenty," Springs said. "I was still insured through JFS, and that was about it."

Springs said she remembers some rough times after she was on her own.

"I remember after my freshman year in college, getting my own apartment," she said. "I didn't have furniture anymore. I remember being stuck."

Springs was the kind of person who could work through those problems on her own, she said. But she knew other former foster care youth who had a much more difficult time.

"My foster care days, I have that in a box, and I have thrown it in the Ohio River," she said. "But I wouldn't take that experience back for the world. It made me the person I am today."

She's a college graduate, a successful professional and a mother of two daughters — 4-year-old Aubrey and 3-month-old Reign.

Springs said she has reconnected with her mom and relates to her better after having her own children. Springs knows her father now, too.

"It's funny how something bad can bring everybody together," she said.

That can take a while, though.

And Maleek Rhaheem still has a ways to go.

Learning the Hard Way

It's been less than a year since Rhaheem left the system.

He graduated from high school in 2015 and is in his second semester at Cincinnati State, where he studies graphic design.

He has been living with his boyfriend for the past six or seven months, and that relationship is going well, he said.

But he has not been able to reconnect with his mother.

He tried a while back when he was still in foster care, and he thought she wanted to reconnect, too.

"But then one day I saw her on the street," he said. "She heard my voice, heard who I was."

Rhaheem's mom asked him over Facebook if he was gay. When he said yes, the exchange quickly became unpleasant, he said.

"That ended the whole conversation," he said. "I had to block her because she was sending negative comments."

Rhaheem does maintain a relationship with an aunt, he said. And he has tried to learn from his father's life and death, staying away from drugs and working hard to follow the rules he is given.

Still, there's a longing.

"If I could ask for my family back, I would definitely ask for them back," he said. "Even though they were very dysfunctional. They helped me be in a better place by showing me what not to do."

It's a heck of a way for a young person to learn life lessons.

But it's how scores of former foster care youth are learning every day.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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