Latoya Steadman was only 2 when the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families removed her from her parents' care because of their constant drug use and child neglect.
"That might be the best thing that happened to me," said Ms. Steadman, 19, who after years of being shuffled between placements in the foster care system -- moving from family settings to group homes -- is now on her own in college.
A freshman majoring in special education at Carlow University, she is by all measures one of the success stories in the county's foster care system, which oversees nearly 5,000 children and youths in or transitioning out of the system every year.
She is also emblematic of how CYF is changing its approach to transitioning youth when they turn 18 and "age out" or leave foster care.
Until three years ago, as much as 88 percent of the youth in foster care left the system because they didn't sign an affidavit to remain a ward of the court and receive further services as long as they pursued post-secondary education. Simply put, they "dropped out" and there was no way to track or help prevent them from ending up homeless, jobless or in jail, said Marc Cherna, director of the county's Department of Human Services.
Now, the department, which in 2006 implemented its Independent Living Initiative, a one-stop program that offers myriad services to both youths who choose to stay in foster care and those who opt out, is undergoing a "paradigm shift of sorts," said Joann Heffron-Hannah, a casework manager who oversees the county's transition programs in the executive office of the Department of Human Services.
"We realized that we needed to expand our care services beyond age 18, whether the youth were still in the system or not. That made it possible for us to also start talking to the youth about the fact that they do have options when they age out. Whether it's staying in school or finding work somewhere, we'll help them," said Ms. Heffron-Hannah.
The change didn't go unnoticed.
"When you're in foster care, it makes a big difference to have people who not only challenge you to achieve, but who listen to you. A lot of us are quite upset and we have a lot of anger, but we're motivated to do better when we see people who care about us," said Ms. Steadman.
Since the start of the initiative, which aims to support foster care youth until age 24, when they are expected to have attained a level of independence, the number of Allegheny County youths in foster care enrolling in college has almost tripled.
The numbers have grown from 35 in 2006 to 40 in 2007 and 98 in 2008 -- and a significant number of those not in school now receive services through county and other programs that help them find housing, employment and health care.
One such support network is the Bridge of Pittsburgh. Located on the 20th floor of the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown, it opened in early 2007 and is operated by a workforce development company, Arbor Education and Training, which also runs facilities in Philadelphia and New York City.
Funded by a grant from the Workforce Investment Act, the Bridge, which partners with the Department of Human Services and a number of other agencies, provides counseling, computer classes, tutoring, job preparation and GED classes, among other services, particularly for youths no longer in foster care.
"We still can't say that we're tracking all the kids that opt out of the system, but we're doing much better than before, especially because we have sought to integrate workforce programs with our independent living facilities," said Ms. Heffron-Hannah.
Allegheny County has five independent living centers that are under contract with the Department of Human Services to house about 400 youths not in foster placements. And every year, about 240 youths age out of the system here.
John Ray and this three brothers were placed in foster care eight years ago. In 2006, Mr. Ray aged out of the system. He attempted the college route, but dropped out of the Community College of Allegheny County, where he was studying psychology.
"I wasn't ready for it, but I haven't given up on it, either," Mr. Ray, 21, said.
But county service providers say they will be doing well if the majority of youths who age out of the system and fail to continue with their education turn out like Mr. Ray, who has held down a job since he was 16, and sustains himself in a one-bedroom apartment in Braddock Hills.
"I feel like I could change the world, but I just don't know how yet," said Mr. Ray, who depended on the services he knew were available through the human services system to secure jobs and housing when he realized he couldn't continue with school.
Over the last few years, Mr. Ray, whose 16-year-old brother is still in foster care, worked as a security guard, as a cashier at Taco Bell and at an Au Bon Pain store Downtown, until he was hired by the Department of Human Services in November as a youth support partner.
In hiring former foster care youths to help in restructuring the methods of service in the foster care system, county officials said they're making an effort to close the gap that often exists between the service providers and the youths in the system. That's because communication is often an impediment to the results they seek.
As a youth support partner, for example, Mr. Ray works with a family support case worker, "to help explain to the youth what is happening to them," he said. "Many times, when I was coming through the system, I felt like they would sit me down to tell me what was happening to me. Nobody ever explained it to me from my standpoint. That's my job now."
"It's part of our attempt to completely transform how we serve our youth," Mr. Cherna said, noting that much of the funding for the human services transition programs he implemented comes from already-established funding sources based on eligibility.
It's a radical approach that could see Allegheny County emerge as a model in serving transitioning youth, said Eileen McCaffery, executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to specifically tackle issues around transitioning youth and foster care.
"There are pockets of other regions around the country, like in North Carolina, for example, where the foster care system is run at the state level, but for the most part, not many agencies have developed their systems as much Allegheny," said Ms. McCaffery of the Virginia-based foundation, which provides college scholarships, mentoring, internships, care packages and educational training vouchers to college-bound foster care youths around the country.
That Allegheny County is able to send more and more of its foster care youths to college is not necessarily distinctive, Ms. McCaffery said, "but that Allegheny County has devised a one-stop services model to reach the kids left out of the system after they turn 18. That is the difference, even though there is probably still a large number they can't reach.
"In this field, data is king nowadays. We all knew that kids were aging out of the system to nothing for many years, but we couldn't start to seriously look at and fund the problem until we could see the numbers."
And that is why, starting in October, every state will be required to survey youths in foster care at ages 17, 19 and 21, she said, in efforts to create a National Youth in Transition Database, which was authorized by the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, also known as the Chafee Act.
Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1719.