CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Every year, hundreds of young adults become ineligible to continue receiving care from the Commonwealth’s Department of Children and Families due to age restrictions. Maria Mossaides, executive director of Cambridge Family and Children’s Service and co-chair of the Massachusetts Task Force on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care, works to help many of these young adults get the housing, career training and educational opportunities they need to one day become self-sufficient.
The love and support of Moussaides’ parents helped guide her to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Some in her neighborhood were not as lucky, she said. After graduating from Harvard, Mossaides became an attorney and a child advocate, committing her life to children who do not have the advantages of a loving family and stable educational environment.
Mossaides recently spoke with SPARE CHANGE NEWS about the struggles these youths face and the importance of continuing to help them become self-sufficient. Below is an edited version of the interview.
What are some of the outcomes of youth aging out of DCF care?
There is a high degree of homelessness. So, the first thing that happens is while you are in state custody, which you will be up to age 22, the state provides you with a home. It’s going to be a group home; it could be a foster home. So,basically, they provide you with a home. And you have to imagine the children who are in [DCF] care are probably children who experience a lot of disruption in their education because they move from foster home to foster home, or they move from group home to foster home, or they attempted to be reunited with their families and it didn’t work. So, because they’ve had disruption often in their educational situation, they don’t have a high school diploma, or they just have very poor educational outcomes.
We have a young man who’s been in our care due to the death of his parents, and he’s approaching his last year of high school and he is functionally illiterate. So you could sort of see you are not going to get very far in today’s world unless you have an appropriate education and job skills. So a lot of kids experience homelessness, which if [they] are homeless [they] are really living on the edge. As a result, there is a large number of transitioning youth who end up in the criminal justice system because they are living on the street. Either [they] succumb to other people on the street, [or] for many of the young women prostitution becomes an inevitable outcome. So there is a high degree of people either getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant, a high degree of criminal justice system involvement, [and] a high degree of depression, either suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. And you can see, if you are suddenly 18 years old with no family connections and no support within the community that you are likely to fail.
Do you think they still need your help after 22?
I think within this population, kids who survived are the young adults who have an unordinary amount of resilience. They either have resilience because they are really smart [and] they are on the smarter end of the academic scale, [and] they completed their education despite all of these barriers. But I think what you are seeing from many of these young people is absolutely horrific outcomes. And that’s true as I said from the study we did in Mass., but it’s also true in the national study. So everyone who looked at this issue [found] the same result: high degrees of homelessness, high degrees of depression, high degrees of criminal justice involvement, high degrees of bad choices because they are not able to be on their own.
In this economy, imagine there is a high degree of people returning home after they graduate from college. They have all the skills and they can’t find a job. So imagine how difficult it is for these transitional youth to find jobs. A year ago the New York Times did a wonderful article that sort of said, really most people of this generation do not launch into adulthood until they are 25 or 26. They come back home because the job market is hard or because their loan repayment for the college education is too high. So they go back home to get on their feet and save enough money to move into their own apartment and feel like they are more stable in the job situation and then they launch. If you think about the young adults we work with who had no advantages in their life and who had a pretty difficult life, how much more do they need to be maintained to reach 25? All of my kids had Ivy League educations and came back home. They had every advantage imaginable — huge consistent loving family; they had both sets of grandparents, and they have all kind of come back home to launch their lives.
So when I think of the children who are in our care, you don’t want them to leave until they have learned the skills to take care of their emotional and health needs, until they have job skills, and until we can get them on the road with completing their education and getting a job so they are able to sustain themselves. And above that, we are desperately trying to connect them to a healthy adult. We need to build life-long connections. That’s either done by finding family members who are appropriate role models and can provide them with support, or we hook them up through our mentoring programs with other individuals who are willing to take care of them.
Do you consider Massachusetts one of the leaders in helping youth transitioning from DCF care?
Mass. certainly was in the forefront of allowing children to get services beyond the age of 18, and there is recent federal law that basically allows states to get reimbursed some additional funding from 18 to 22. We were one of the leaders in terms of allowing children to voluntarily stay in service until age 22. They still need help with a whole bunch of things and they certainly need help with housing.
You and Home for Little Wanderers co-chaired the Task Force on Youth Aging Out. Can you tell me a little bit about the task force?
The Task Force on Youth Aging Out came out of some early efforts by Cambridge Family and Children Service and the Kennedy School to really examine some of the issues around what we were seeing in our group homes. With the support of many foundations across Mass. we created a statewide task force and then issued a report with the help of the Boston Foundation that really documented the poor outcomes that many of these children experience. Once the report was issued, which is back in 2008, we have kept the task force together basically by all of us continuing to support the cost of the staff person. And the idea is we are continuing to make changes. We made changes to Mass. law to allow children to continue to receive services up to age 22. We have to work primarily on housing issues because housing is the severe barrier given the high cost of housing in Mass. We have attempted to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development around their homeless initiatives trying to get these young people a priority on the list of those who are homeless. So the current priorities are intact families, but these kids are really a family of one and they need priority as well. So we continue to work on a variety of issues, and we are currently working with several of the housing authorities to create a pilot program that will allow us to provide housing for a small group of these young adults, and if that works,hopefully it will convince the state to make some fundamental changes to the housing programs so that they can be supported maybe through age 25.
Can you tell me the history of Cambridge Children’s and Family Service and what services do you provide to the young adults?
Cambridge Family and Children’s Service is probably one of the oldest human service agencies in Mass.. We are the first human service agency in Cambridge. We are 140 years old and we started as an orphanage. After the Civil War, with no medicine and no antibiotics, a great many adults as well as children died every year from the flu, or routine cuts turning into infections. We moved from an orphanage to foster care, and as the needs of children change we also change.
What distinguishes your program from other programs and agencies that provide services to transitioning youth aging out of DCF?
We’ve been running group homes for probably 20 years. We have a girl’s home in Malden, and a boy’s home in Dorchester. We have eight young adults living in both of those homes. In addition to that we have an independently living program, so after you graduate from living in a group home we work with you and set you up in your first apartment. We actually co-sign the lease because you are not going to have the credit history. We have landlords who have been taking our kids in for a really long period of time. That means everything because when you think about it, when my children or most young adults have their first apartments, they get hand-me-downs from family. They get the extra set of dishes from an aunt, or the extra bed, or couch, or the coffee table, or the microwave that has been sitting in someone’s garage. These young adults have not been connected to their family, so we literally go out and get furniture for them and set them up in their first apartment and continue to work with them to monitor them as they get on the road of self-sufficiency.
As inevitably happens for every young adult, there are setbacksand we are there to help them with their setbacks as well. We have a young woman who had been on her own and doing really well, but they cut her hours at work. All of a sudden, she was having a really hard time both paying her rent and paying for food. We stepped in with gift cards that we recruit, and we were able to help her with food until she was able to find another job with better hours as she completes her college education. We have a tradition at Cambridge Family doing whatever our clients need and certainly for the young adults who are in this transition to adulthood process. I think we probably go even more than the usual above and beyond because we recognize that these are the children the Commonwealth did not do a good job with and we owe them an appropriate launch in life.
We have foster care; we do adoption, so that if a child in foster care is free for adoption we can help them find a new permanent family. In Mass.’s law, once you reach the age of 12 a judge has to ask the child what they want. They don’t have to listen to them, but they have to ask, and I think for many children, once they reach a certain age, they don’t want to be adopted. If they can’t go home, and they recognized that sometimes, because a family is not able to keep them safe, nonetheless, they often times refuse to help us find them a permanent home because they feel that that’s somehow a betrayal of their birth family. And even though we encourage them to be connected to other adults, and many of them are happy to take on a mentor, and we have mentoring relationships that lasted for 15 plus years. A mentor who was seeing a child go through high school, help them through college, was there at their wedding, people who really committed to a young person for a long period of time. It’s not possible for every child that we worked with to achieve the highest level of permanency that we want every child to have. The way I view it is everyone should be very clear that we have a home to go to for Thanksgiving, regardless of whether they want to or not, everyone knows that’s where I go for Thanksgiving. For many of our young adults, they were not able to achieve that goal, and it’s sad. But we are committed to the young adults that we have in our care, and we tell them when they are finally ready to be on their own. But if they ever run into difficulty, all they have to do is to call and we will step up and see what we can do to help them back on track.
How many youths do you help each year?
In a course of a year, we probably see 20 to 30 young adults at various stages of the program. They range from 16 and a half to the day before their 22nd birthdays.
How long do you provide services to help the young adults transitioning from DCF care?
Ideally what you want to do is to work with a young adult over several years so you can help them. We had something we invested in for this agency alone called the Pathway Advisor, so we had a one-on-one relationship with a staff person. We work with the young adult and the staff of the group home to create their own transition plan for adulthood. What is it that you want and how are we going to help you achieve that goal so when you leave here at whatever stage after the group home, after the group home plus independent living, that you are actually be able to succeed? And our Pathway Advisor really works with these young adults and the longer you work with someone, the more time you are going to have to be more successful. I would say that if we are lucky we get to work with a young adult for two to three years, and sometimes it’s as short as 18 months. Imagine taking someone whose life had been very disrupted and someone who has a traumatic history and try to get them ready for independence in 18 months. So the longer we have to work with someone, I think the more successful we can be, because build that relationship with that young adult and they start to trust us. We can convince them to do more to get them ready before they leave state care.
Is your staff trained or volunteers?
It’s a combination of clinically trained staff and our mentors who actually are trained and receive a lot of support for their maintaining a relationship with one of these young adults.
Who funds your services to these young adults?
We raise money every year and we are very fortunate that one of our board members, when he retired from the bank, set up a fund that actually allows us to provide support for recreational activities. If they want to go to a Celtics game, we send them to the Celtics game. Every summer, we have several board members who pay for a little summer vacation. What we want for these young adults is to be able to experience life as normally as they can, recognizing that their own childhood was seriously disrupted so they don’t have all the normal experiences. What we are trying to do is to give them those normal experiences. We also have people coaching on job situations.