Until a month ago, a child in foster care within the state’s Department of Children and Family Services system could no longer receive government benefits once he or she reached age 18.
Because they had “aged out,” many young adults were left without necessary resources to survive; some didn’t even have a high school diploma.
Senate Bill 129 – passed during the 2018 legislative session and signed June 1 by Gov. John Bel Edwards – now extends to youth and their foster parents all government benefits available to foster care recipients until he or she obtains a high school diploma or equivalent (General Education Development/GED) or turns 21, whichever comes first.
Louisiana is among 27 jurisdictions that have extended foster care benefits.
“The goal is to make sure that every child in foster care has a permanent connection, that no child leaves foster care without a personal connection,” said Children and Family Services’ director of communications Catherine Heitman. “Every child needs a permanent, loving adult connection in their lives.”
In 2017 in Louisiana, there were 4,683 children in the foster care system. Of those, 563 lived in Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. Aging out of foster care were 173 children statewide.
Catholic parish responds
While extending benefits is a victory for foster children, many still lack the resources or know-how to survive on their own after high school.
To help these youth, the Respect for Life committee at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Marrero has thrown an “Aging Out” shower the past two years. Members assemble baskets filled with household necessities, personal items, gift cards and a binder of helpful hints such as budgets, school supplies, home safety tips, recipes and prayers. Lois Thibodaux and Lana Chiasson assembled the binder; and the parish’s Helping Hands group contributes to the initiative.
A former foster care youth, now on her own studying cosmetology, spoke at the June 23 event. She expressed happiness to be out of the foster care system and doing something she enjoys, although it took experimenting with careers to decide her future. She initially wanted to pursue nursing and took CNA classes, upon the suggestion of her foster mom. The long hours and witnessing people unhappy in the profession then led her to cosmetology. She loves it.
“Cosmetology school is not just about hair,” she said she learned. “I’m still in the books, and I’m learning so much. When I had a three-page paper, I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ God got me back on my path. I’m very happy with my decision.”
In foster care, she said she learned how to pray, learned about God and that “the things that happened to me were not all bad because it made me into the person I am today.” She’s also working on her relationship with her mother and interacting more with her siblings, she said.
“We are so happy you have come back and shared with us,” Respect for Life committee coordinator Brenda Williams told the young lady who was a 2017 basket recipient.
Foster parents also were recognized at the event for being guiding lights in the lives of foster children. Among them was Burma Bentley, who has been a foster parent for about 15 years. She said she became a foster care parent so the children knew someone was always there to care for them.
Williams said other parishes came to the event June 23 to learn about how they were helping the community. Members from St. Dominic’s Women of Sts. Martha and Mary and the Catholic Daughters of the America’s Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Court 2165 were there.
In line with respecting life
Debbie Shinskie, head of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office, has encouraged St. Joseph the Worker and other parishes to conduct pro-life activities.
Shinskie said there are young adults leaving foster care who are ill-prepared to live on their own, especially after losing all social services due to aging out of the system. Because there really isn’t any transitional care from one social service entity to another, kids often wonder where they can go if they need help.
“This parish is stepping up and saying a grassroots effort is a solution,” Shinskie said, realizing that they could do this. “What can you do right there (in your parish) that is a corporal work of mercy, and Brenda (Williams) said this is their response.”
An ongoing response
Williams encouraged the foster kids present to be the best person they could be.
“This is not the end of us,” she said, adding that more gifts would be forthcoming. “We want to keep up with you and shower you with love.”
“We want them to understand that this is not a one-time thing,” Thibodaux said.
Those seeking more information about the state’s foster care system can go to the Department of Children and Family Services’ website: http://www.dcfs.louisiana.gov. First Lady Donna Edwards has launched Louisiana Fosters to connect foster parents with community support from faith-based groups, nonprofits, business and communities: http://www.loui sianafosters.la.gov. Another program that helps older foster kids is Open Table, where a table of adult advisers consults on budgets, finances, obtaining a loan, maintaining good credit, etc.
For details on St. Joseph the Worker’s project, contact Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.