‘You learn things from the program. They teach you to write a résumé, to talk in an interview. They teach you how to keep smiling,” says Kaysanty Cabral. Perhaps this last skill seems like an easy one, but for Cabral, who spent six years in foster care before aging out of the system a couple of years ago, there weren’t so many reasons to smile.
But thanks to a program called America Works, which matches low-skill job seekers with companies that need employees, Kaysanty is beating the odds.
Every year, about 1,200 young people leave New York City’s foster-care system. According to the Administration for Children’s Services, only 20 percent are discharged to the care of a parent, relative or other adult. The rest are on their own.
And they rarely have the tools to manage. Foster youth are 44 percent less likely to complete high school than the general population, and less than half are employed within four years of emancipation. This population is more likely to be at risk for drug and alcohol abuse and to become involved in prostitution.
Ronald Richter, who has worked as a judge in family court and now runs the fourth-largest foster-care agency in the city, tells me, “More and more, we understand that the 0-5 [years old] stage is critical for young people to develop self regulation. You learn when you get up, when you go to sleep. The brain is trained to understand routine.”
But most of the kids in foster care have had “a very poor 0-5 experience.” And in the time since then, many have been living in environments with a lot of conflict.
When they age out, one important question is where they’ll live. For an 18-year-old without education, job training or the ability to regulate his own behavior, public housing can be a disaster. One approach then, is a model like the Foyer Program, which provides “wrap-around” services like mentoring and education assistance.
America Works has a contract starting in April with the city’s Human Resources Administration to aid hundreds of former foster youths in Brooklyn and The Bronx. (Kaysanty went through the America Works program outside of the city’s involvement.) The four-decade-old organization holds that the first step to getting people to be independent, productive citizens is getting them a job.
America Works has placed a half-million people in jobs with an average starting wage of $10 per hour plus benefits. In New York City, more than half of these workers were still employed after six months. Founder Peter Cove writes in a new book that America Works has found jobs for “single parents, drug and alcohol abusers, the mentally handicapped, the homeless [and] military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The group’s regional director in Brooklyn, Samantha Goldstein, explains, “Our environment simulates the work day.” People are required to be there 9-5. If they show up 20 minutes late or forget to clock out, their caseworkers will explain why this is a problem.
But despite the skills and knowledge gap they face, many of the young men and women who come to America Works get jobs almost immediately. Kaysanty had a job working at a laundry center, washing and folding clothes and handling customer service by her second day in the program.
Goldstein notes that “we need to be honest and realistic” about what a person who comes to America Works might be capable of doing, but too often it seems that people are focused on the obstacles to work. America Works CEO Lee Bowes describes how people who come into their offices often bring “piles of letters” from doctors and other professionals explaining all the reasons they have for not working.
Certainly in the case of those who have aged out of foster care, there are issues about education and family background that are important to keep in mind. And America Works provides counseling, help with working out transportation, child care and other factors that may get in the way of employment.
With former foster youth, America Works is helping them with high-school equivalency exams and even college courses. It’s teaching them how to make a household budget. Since starting her job a few months ago, Kaysanty speaks to someone at America Works twice a week, and he has helped her negotiate a schedule that allows her to care for her 1-year-old.
These are obstacles to be managed, though. The important thing is that Kaysanty and others like her have a job and an eye on their future. As she advises others with similar backgrounds, “Keep your head up. There are other people who have situations worse than us.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
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