Oct 05, 2012

Out of Foster Care, Into Their Own Homes

Ria Woods (left) holds one end of the ribbon in the ribbon-cutting ceremony in September 2011 for the new Williamson Apartments in which she lives. Donna Williamson Faulkner, the apartments’ funder, holds the scissors. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

By Beth Cortez-Neavel
For Reporting Texas

“Did you take your blood this morning?” Brianne Havens asked.

“Not yet,” Ria Woods said, chewing her egg and sausage sandwich. She was standing inside the door to her apartment, in front of a legal-sized paper sign reminding her to “take meds and blood levels” in purple capital letters.

Havens is the after-care coordinator for the year-old Transitional Living Program at the Settlement Home for Children in Austin. Settlement Home is a state-licensed foster care and adoption center with four main programs that focus on providing a safe home and services for troubled teenage girls. The Transitional Living Program is for women 18 to 23 who have aged out of the foster care system but are not quite ready to make the leap from living in a group home to living on their own.

Julie Moody, a media specialist at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said programs like this help guide adolescents into adulthood.

“Being able to have more time with youth, provide more support and help so they can hopefully become productive citizens, is by far the most positive aspect of independent living programs,” Moody said. “When someone is in your corner, hoping for a successful outcome, you are more likely to succeed. We push ourselves when there is someone expecting something good. It works the same with our foster youth. If they believe an adult really cares about them, they are going to want to do better.”

In the past, the foster care system released its charges on their 18th birthday or after high school graduation without much transitional preparation for adulthood. With the home’s new program, these young women have the opportunity to make a smoother transition into living on their own.

Havens and the director of the program, Crimson Holland, check up on the young women in the program and guide them. During weekly meetings, Holland and Havens help them set up goals like getting a copy of their original birth certificate, setting up a bank account or just learning how to cook dinner.

“Basically, we will be funding and helping them with all of their basic needs, just like we would if they lived in one of our group homes or foster families,” Holland said. “The difference is that they will be responsible for going grocery shopping, cooking their own meals and making sure that they’re budgeting and spending that money effectively.”

The young women must fit the criteria for the Extended Care Program, which is part of the state Department of Family and Protective Services. Each woman must be unmarried and must not be pregnant or have children. She must be enrolled in college or a trade school or have at least a part-time job. The tenants are not charged rent but pay the Settlement Home for utilities.

On this day, Havens and Holland were visiting Woods in her second-floor efficiency for an officially documented “safety and wellness walkthrough.” Woods’ mother had put her in foster care before her senior year in high school after she had threatened to kill a relative.

Woods, who is 20 now, was 16 in 2009 when she moved into the home’s residential treatment center, a highly supervised and highly structured live-in program for girls ages 7 to 17. With therapy and medication, she thrived in the environment, and a year later, graduated to the more relaxed yet still supervised group home cottage with eight others in foster care. Last September, Woods was one of the first four women to move into the home’s recently opened transitional living program.

The kitchen of one of the Williamson Apartments. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

The Williamson Apartments in Northeast Austin can house 10 women, each with her own efficiency apartment on the back end of the Home’s 10-acre lot. The apartments, were fully funded by Donna Williamson Faulkner, the 80-year-old Austin philanthropist.

Faulkner has requested that the Home not release specific dollar amounts as to the cost of the buildings. Ed Wendler, an Austin developer with no affiliation to the Home, estimates that without furnishing, the Williamson Apartments might be worth roughly $932,000 at the minimum. This excludes the cost of land- which the Home already owned and includes material and labor costs as well as soft costs such as design, city fees and building permits. Wendler roughly estimates the nearby office building cost a minimum of $626,000 in construction, without furnishings.

Havens and Holland have done informal inspections every few weeks for the four women living in the apartments. But this is their first formal walkthrough for the program.

They are checking up on how Woods is adjusting to living alone and cleaning up after herself. Havens and Holland also want to explore whether she is following her diabetes-management regimen and is checking her blood sugar each morning.

“One, we want to check on how the appliances are working, make sure that maintenance is in good shape,” Holland said to Woods. “This is a brand-new apartment, so we want to make sure that everything is working okay. Second, we want to make sure that you’re taking care of the apartment so it doesn’t have any long-term effects on the furniture or the apartment.”

Woods, Havens and Holland stood in the middle of a full kitchen — minus a dishwasher — with new black appliances. Havens looked inside the refrigerator, checking for expiration dates on the food. She read the bottom of a sour cream container, noting that it had expired four weeks earlier.

“So you want to throw that out,” she said.

“Oh yeah, I haven’t used that,” Woods said.

Havens dug through the fridge a bit more, searching for more expired food. She didn’t find any.

“Hey, that’s the only one in there. That’s not bad,” Holland said.

As they go through the apartment, Havens and Holland offered Woods tips on organizing her closet and cupboards. They asked questions: When did she last sweep the apartment? How’s the storage space? They want to know how she’s doing with the workload of maintaining an efficiency apartment and how she’s doing in general.

During the walkthrough, Woods answered in a blunt, no-nonsense tone and listened intensely to their advice. She said she had been struggling with a few things since she moved in a month and a half ago.

Woods felt successful the day she moved from the home’s therapeutic group cottage into her new apartment. She had been living there with seven others in foster care and with at least one adult clinical care worker 24 hours a day. Now, she lives alone with limited adult supervision — Havens and Holland are available only during business hours, and a resident manager can be reached during non-business hours by phone.

“The first two weeks were the hardest,” Woods said. She was lonely. “I was calling people all the time and telling them I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to go back to the group home. It’s really different moving from a place with lots of girls to living by yourself. It’s really hard and different. But now I’m used to it.”

This was one of her worries before she moved into the apartments. It was also a concern that the Settlement Home’s executive director, Linda Kokemor, had as she and Holland began monitoring the tenants.

But, Kokemor added, as they are getting used to seeking out people to spend time with — instead of just always having people around — they are also getting used to spending time by themselves.

Kokemor said that independent living “speaks to being comfortable with yourself, because it is lonely being by yourself.” She added: “We’ve had trouble with some of the girls moving in, having one foot in the door and having one foot somewhere else.”

For the women struggling with loneliness, Havens and Holland tell them to think about their resources.

“What can you do – let’s structure your day,” Holland typically tells them. “Let’s get some things planned for you. Who can you call when you want to be around people?”

Woods, who has a part-time job at an elementary school, said she “got over” her loneliness by calling friends and family and contacting people on Facebook. Sometimes, she said, her boyfriend will come pick her up and they’ll go eat dinner, take walks around the park or see a movie. According to the apartment rules, he’s not allowed to spend the night.

Another struggle is dealing with money. One tenant began panicking toward the end of one month because she didn’t have enough money to pay her bills. “She had already started calling homeless shelters for a place to live, like we were going to kick her out,” Kokemor said.

Holland said that the program struggles with walking the fine line between over-parenting and supervising.

“We’re not going to pursue you too much, but we’re here if you need us. We’re still going to check in on you and we’re not going to run after you,” she said. “If they want to get something out of it, we’re ready to roll up our sleeves, but we’re not going to force [them]. Because you just can’t. They’re adults, basically.”

This dynamic is made more challenging because the woman are used to having every need met through foster care, Kokemor said. Much of this program centers on teaching them to live independently.

The program directors said they are also figuring out what the program will need as it enrolls more women. The goal is to have all 10 apartments occupied by June.

“We wanted to go slow to get the culture set,” Kokemor said, alluding to the initial four tenants. “If we just load up with a bunch of young women, we’re not going to have the culture that we want. So we wanted to go slowly in order to make sure that we worked out all the kinks of the things that could go wrong.”

So far, she is pleased with how everything is going. “This is our first venture and it’s like untested waters. You just worry how it’s going to go, but so far we’re going,” she said.

Woods also likes her environment. “It’s quiet here,” she said. “I like quietness. It’s drama-free.”

A month and a half after moving in, Woods still had a few boxes to unpack, but her routine was pretty much set. After work, there’s dinner, Facebook or watching animated movies like “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”

She likes living on her own.

“Now that I’m mature, I’m able to do this,” she said.