The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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NYC Closes IL Housing Programs
I didn’t get to be independent for long enough
Samantha Flowers
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I was taken away from my aunt and put into a foster home when I was 14 years old. I have been in care ever since, and I’m now 20.

Many of my placements ended up as failures, causing me to move around a lot. At first I thought that all these moves were bound to land me in a home where I was welcome and would fit in, but moving around had mostly bad effects. Always switching schools caused my grades to drop. I never connected properly with my foster parents or made any real friends. I got a new social worker with each move.

I didn’t find anyone I could truly rely on. I made a few good connections and companions along the way but nobody I could really trust. Every time I did trust someone, I was either betrayed or felt used. I didn’t fully trust that the foster parents I ended up with cared much about my well-being.

I didn’t enjoy it, but all the moving around made me stronger and more independent because I had to rely on myself so much. For years, I prided myself on being able to support myself emotionally when my foster parents and the system didn’t do a very good job of it. But I now see that it involves more than independence to make it on my own.

Proving My Strength

When I was 18, I was living with a foster mother who thought all teenagers were the same—always going AWOL, doing drugs, and drinking. She’d ask me a million questions about where I was going and with whom and didn’t seem to notice that I came home on time, did my chores, and didn’t talk back.

I had two and a half years left in care. I wanted to prove to my agency, my foster mother, and most of all to myself that I had the skills and confidence to live on my own. I did some research and found a program called SILP, which stands for “Supervised Independent Living Program.”

I learned that youth 18-21 in foster care could live in either a regular apartment or a private house for 12 to 18 months, while getting a living/food stipend every two weeks and a clothes stipend every three months. You needed to either be going to school or working to live in the SILP. You got another stipend for the Independent Living program, even if you didn’t attend any IL workshops, because living in a SILP while working or going to school was considered hands-on learning.

You got paired up with a roommate or two, but you each had your own room. A social worker checked up on you (they said once a week; it turned out to be once a month). But you were still basically living on your own. This sounded perfect to me: a taste of what it would be like when I aged out and lived on my own, but with the support of a foster care agency.

On My Own

To get a SILP placement, I had to change agencies and social workers, almost like starting over in foster care. (Only some foster care agencies in New York City placed youth in SILPs.) After five months of paperwork, filling out applications, and two interviews, I was finally accepted into the SILP and was able to move in a month later. My foster mother kept warning me that I’d get in trouble, but I was happy to be on my own.

My roommates and I were not “Barney and Friends,” but we got along well enough to live with one another. I was taking college classes, working six hours a day, and was still keeping a social life on the side with my boyfriend. Everything felt basically in balance.

But being on my own was not always peaches and cream. Occasionally I would feel lonely, bored, or stressed. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood and only saw my boyfriend on weekends. All my friends were away at college; it felt like I had nobody there for me. Cooking was OK, but because my roommates and I had to share chores in the house, many times we were like Tom and Jerry. We always seemed to bump heads over cleaning. My roommates were always out, and I missed the company of the other foster kids in my last home. I was independent, but I didn’t have anyone to show off my independence to.

image by Freddy Bruce

Fewer Options

Then, only four months after I’d gotten there, I found out that ACS (New York’s Children’s Services) was closing all the SILPs. I had to leave seven months earlier than what we had contracted. My worker told me I would have to go back into a foster home or sign out of care and be put into the NY/NY III program, which is a supportive housing program mostly for people with mental illnesses. I don’t have a mental illness, but my social workers said, “Don’t worry about that; you’ve been through a lot, and you’ve been to therapy.”

My other option was to sign myself out of care completely and try to make it on my own at age 19. To make my stress worse, ACS had also cut the $700 discharge stipend you get when you leave care. No one helped me understand why this was happening. It was like, “This is what it is and you need to go along with it. No questions asked.”

Why would ACS close this program? This is what they officially said: “The decision to end the SILP program, which has been in existence for about 10 years, is related to a belief that most youth can be best served in a family-based setting. It can be a difficult to transition to independence as an adult, and we believe that a youth should have a family to support him or her throughout each of their lives.”

I agree that youth should have that, but I had never found such a foster family in my six years in care. I felt played and unprepared to just be rushed out of care like that. I decided not to sign myself out of care, so that meant going back into a foster home.

I didn’t want to. I felt like I still had a lot to learn about being independent and living on my own. I would have liked to have gotten better at finding community supports in the neighborhood where my SILP was. I cooked what I already knew, but I wanted to try new recipes. I wanted to learn more about getting along with roommates.

Reunited

But if I had to go back to someone’s home, I wanted to live with my old foster mom in the Bronx. We had our clashes, but before I left she seemed to be understanding me more. I’d proved to her that I wasn’t mischievous or a sneak, that all teenagers aren’t bad. We’d stayed in touch after I went to the SILP.

I called her up and told about the SILP closing. I felt a little weird asking her to take me back because when I left her a year before, I was cocky that I wouldn’t be returning except to visit. She was very understanding and welcomed me back with open arms. She didn’t have much space, but she made room for me.

Being back in her apartment was a bit overwhelming at first, but the other foster kids and her adopted kids were excited to have me back. And I was glad to be back too. A lot has changed, of course. I don’t have my own bedroom anymore; I have to share with an 8-year-old. On the other hand, I am trusted a lot more to make my own decisions and treated more like an adult than before.

I have noticed that when you are on your own it’s like the jungle; everybody for themselves. Especially when you don’t have any other support system beside yourself. My foster mother is at least a temporary support system. I’m not her direct responsibility like her adopted kids are; she says she’ll be there for me after I turn 21, but I can’t be sure of that. She may need the money from another foster kid.

At first, with the closing of the SILP and me having to go back into a foster home, I felt as if I were taking two steps back and zero forward, but now it feels like being back with my foster mother is actually pointing me in the right direction.

I would love to find a “family to support me throughout my life,” like ACS says, before I age out. But many foster kids don’t, and we need to be ready for life on our own. I think it’s a mistake to close the SILPs. Part of the reason I’m getting along with my foster mother now is because I proved myself. I only had nine months living on my own, but I stayed in control. I got lonely but I didn’t get depressed or overwhelmed. I realized I could do what I needed to do to survive and that I could walk the walk of independence.

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(FCYU-2010-10-15)

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