Foster care placement is one of the childhood risk factors, which predicts adult homelessness. A mother with a childhood history of foster care is far more likely to become homeless than one who has never entered the foster care system.
Darlesha Joyner is one such mother who comprises more than 6,500 District residents without permanent homes.
“I’m tired and frustrated,” said Joyner, 22, who entered Maryland’s foster care system at 14 years old. Her 18-month-old son rested on her hip with his legs akimbo. “My issue is not only with living in the shelter but even before. I don’t want to be here.”
Since January, Joyner, a mother of two, has lived in the old D.C. General Hospital, which was repurposed as a family shelter in Southeast. Recent reports indicate it houses 284 families with nearly 600 children, more than half of them under the age of 12.
Joyner experienced a series of losses over a short time. At four years old, her mother died. Her father followed at seven. One grandmother died when she was 10 and another at 14. Since the age of seven, she was bounced around by family members, living from house to house, until she entered foster care, the native Washingtonian said.
“My family said I was hard headed,” said Joyner who has a learning disability. At 18, she emancipated herself by leaving the foster care system, got into domestic violence situations, lived in hallways and slept outdoors.
She joined several persons who testified at Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham’s public oversight hearing on D.C. General’s services and management onsite at the shelter on Feb. 28.
“These children are wards of the city and we have special responsibility for them,” said Graham, chair of the Committee on Human Services with oversight authority over D.C. General. “In the process, we become their parents, and we should anticipate their needs when they’re emancipated.”
One woman revealed she was a foster child from 2 to 21 years old, and now lives at D.C. General.
The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the city’s child welfare agency, reported in 2008 that more than one-third of the youth leaving the system at 21 did so with “few or none of the supports and resources … to ensure sustainable independent living.”
This vexing national problem of foster care becoming a breeding ground for future homeless adults isn’t new.
The 1994 Green Book from the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, reported that mid-1980s surveys indicated significant numbers of homeless shelter users were recently discharged from foster care. The book provides data under the committee’s jurisdiction.
Children “age out” of the system when they’re discharged from government care, between 18 and 21. As young adults, they’re forced into pseudo independence with little resources to assume adulthood.
Earlier this month, the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA), a coalition of youth-engaged organizations and residents found that 40 percent of D.C.’s homeless youth were in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.
“Young adults, under the best circumstances, don’t turn 18 or 21 years old and magically become rational, self-sufficient adults; and a history of trauma, abuse or neglect further impacts their social-emotional development,” said Maggie Riden, a DCAYA senior policy analyst at a council oversight hearing. “To achieve lasting stability, this population needs an array of supportive resources … not defined by age, but by scope of need.”
Young people in foster care leave placements due to conflicts, or they seek more familiar surroundings, Riden said.
But, to Ressurrection Graves, reasons for leaving are more ominous. She said national evidence-based studies maintained that 20 to 30 percent of children in foster care are sexually abused, which leads to early emancipation.
“Child sexual abuse has its own set of traumas, which are linked to adult homelessness,” said Graves, a child sexual abuse expert and survivor, and a homeless mother for three years. Due to her traumatic experiences Graves, who was raised in the D.C. area, will launch in August a nonprofit that offers alternative shelter solutions for those seeking transitional housing.
“The trauma of being removed from the home causes disruptions, and those build over time,” said Nicki Sanders, a Columbia, Md., social worker. “Children in foster care move on average about seven times. They have new schools, rules to follow, values, academic and social challenges. There’s instability in the life of a foster child on a consistent basis, in many cases.”
This cycle will probably continue for Joyner’s children. Her three-year-old daughter is in foster care.
“Our child and family welfare system continues to be a pipeline into homelessness and instability for hundreds of youth each year,” Riden added.