Annica Trotter knows firsthand the challenges foster children face as they become adults: She was already living on her own at age 18, three years after turning herself over to the state, entering the foster care system as a pregnant 15-year-old.
Trotter is now part of a St. Louis-based program that could serve as a national model to ease the transition from foster care to independence. The St. Louis Aging Out Initiative focuses on young people in state custody who don't have the resources needed to make a smooth transition to life on their own once they "age out," or are legally emancipated from the foster care system.
Without the program, it's estimated about half of the foster children in the St. Louis region who age out become homeless at some point. Less than half have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and about 80 percent of young women who age out become pregnant before 21, organizers said.
The program aims to help foster children before they're on their own.
"A lot of communities nationally are struggling with this," said Curtis Holloman, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Local Initiative Funding Partners program. "How do we make sure these youth who live in so many different families or at so many different addresses are healthy, productive adults?"
The foundation, a New Jersey-based health care philanthropy, recently gave the St. Louis program a three-year, $500,000 matching grant; some $600,000 was already committed by area organizations involved in the program. If successful, Holloman sees it as a potential national model.
Many reach adulthood lacking crucial skills
Trotter said former foster children like her often enter adulthood lacking certain crucial skills.
Although she knew how to look after her own place or to call maintenance if something broke, she said, "I needed help with how a bank account worked, what's credit, filling out and maintaining a budget. No one really had time to explain those `little' big things to me, or they just assumed someone else had."
Now 21 and in college studying to be a paramedic, she works with foster children to help them navigate adulthood.
About 20,000 young people "age out" of the foster care system annually in the United States, including about 350 a year in Missouri. Missouri is among the states that can provide services up to age 21, but foster children seeking independence can opt out at 18.
Once they do, they're left to make their own decisions about finances, school, jobs, housing, even health insurance -- though foster children in Missouri qualify for health care coverage until they are 21, under a new law this year.
The Aging Out Initiative helps them acquire life skills, with a goal that they can take care of themselves financially by age 25, said Kevin Drollinger, executive director of Epworth Children and Family Services, the lead agency on the project.
It seeks to help teens with questions like, "What sort of funding assistance is available for college? How do I get my GED or learn about trade school?" Drollinger said.
"The idea is to piece together services and to let them choose from there."
Program aims to provide options
The initiative is recruiting 100 16-year-olds this year and another 100 in 2008. The hope is that participants will be more likely to have a high school diploma, to make use of education training vouchers, to be able to secure steady jobs and housing.
While there are already resources available in Missouri to children aging out of foster care, the new program is set up to feel less like a class. It allows foster children to decide what they need more information on and gets that assistance to them, Trotter said.
She lets teens in the program know she can relate.
When Trotter was 8 weeks old, her mother was found wandering in St. Louis traffic, with young Annica wrapped in a receiving blanket and nothing else. Trotter began living with her grandmother.
At age 13, with her grandmother in failing health, the two moved in with another relative. They had about a year of stability before the adults stopped being able to provide for basic needs.
"We lived for a year without gas. The electricity was never on all the time. And, uh, we didn't have any food," Trotter said. "...I was so jealous of other kids, not because they had cool clothes or cell phones, but because they had food."
At age 15, she became pregnant, left school and worked at a fast-food restaurant.
When her grandmother died, Trotter essentially turned herself over to the state, realizing she needed a better living situation. Trotter didn't get prenatal care until she entered foster care, she said.
But stays in her first foster homes were problematic. In one, a woman falsely accused her of trying to sleep with another foster child. In another, a mother wanted Trotter to do basic tasks for the woman's adopted teen.
Her son, Michael, had multiple health problems and required hospital stays, once for four months.
‘Nothing like what I'd ever experienced’
In 2002, Trotter and her son were placed in a foster home that changed their lives. The foster parents were George and Linda Brother. "They were very welcoming. It was nothing like what I'd ever really experienced," she said.
Linda Brother found a program that accepted special-needs children, to help Trotter care for her son. Trotter began taking classes to earn her GED. "Before I came into foster care, I never thought I'd go to college," Trotter said.
The couple consoled and supported her when Michael died of breathing-related problems in 2004.
Trotter requested to stay in state care until she was 21. The skills she needed when she got her own place are among those she helps current foster children learn in the Aging Out Initiative.
Participants also create "life books" that include their Social Security card, birth certificate, family health history and immunization records. They can include family photos, so they don't get misplaced if children change homes.
Organizations working on the program believes it will give foster children support to succeed. And Trotter has some additional support on her side, too. Last year, on her birthday, her foster parents adopted her.
"It meant the world," Trotter said. "It was the first time I felt what family is supposed to be."