Aging Out of Foster Care in SC: An Interview with Michael VonCannon

In The Language of Flowers: A Novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, we meet Victoria, a young woman who ages out of the foster system in California, and we see that the odds for her success as an adult begin bleakly.  Reading the book made me wonder what young people in South Carolina experience when they age out, so I interviewed Michael VonCannon of South Carolina’s Independent Living program.

Michael VonCannon has been in the social work field for the past nine years.  In addition to working as an Independent Living Advocate for teens in foster care, he has worked as a caseworker with South Carolina’s Department of Social Services and as a Director at Calvary Home for Children.  He has a B.A. in Christian Ministries, and he has done mission work both in the United States and abroad.

Below, with the help of his co-worker Patrice White, he answers my questions about aging out of foster care in South Carolina.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria Jones ages out of the California foster care system on her eighteenth birthday.  On that day, her caseworker takes her to a transitional home, gives her $20, and tells her she has twelve weeks to get a job.  What does aging out of foster care look like in South Carolina?

Aging out of foster care in South Carolina can happen at any time between a young person’s 18th and 21st birthday, depending on their goals, desires, and wants.  Many young people, no matter what state they live in, leave the system at 18, because they distrust the system.  Some feel they are grown enough to make their own decisions.  Others are just scared and uncertain about what is next.

Unfortunately, they have learned through countless disappointments and frustrations to only rely on themselves.  They have built walls to protect themselves from getting hurt, especially by another adult; which hinders their capability to build connections with adults to gain a support system.  Sadly, whatever their reason for leaving foster care is, the statistics are not too favorable for them due to not having the support they “think” they have.  Many of them do not have an adequate support network that is needed to be successful on their own.

South Carolina is striving to do better at ensuring that our young people can achieve greatness after care, by doing a few important things: 1) implementing new services through partnerships with other agencies, 2) updating current services to make them better for our young people, and 3) providing training to case managers about the importance of transition planning to help identify the youth’s support system and identify the steps needed for a successful transition out of care.  It is important to identify what is still needed for our young people to have a successful transition out of care and connect with the Independent Living program for the funds to those services.

Through Independent Living, we provide funds for services that help youth achieve education, employment, housing, and transportation goals.  We can provide assistance to eligible youth (who are working or in school) by helping pay for Driver’s Education so they can get their driver’s license, purchase senior items to graduate high school with their peers, up to $5,000 annually to help with college tuition and fees, as well as interview clothing, work clothes and shoes, and rental assistance for six months in an apartment.

These are just several options our young people can request to get help for the path they choose to follow after leaving foster care.  We understand that some youth may not commit to a four institute, but we do encourage some form of education.  There are wonderful two year technical programs or vocational certification programs nationwide that provide different opportunities. Some youth might prefer to just enter the work force.  We know and understand the concept of “buying-in” to one’s own success is more important than completing a task because you were told to do it. It is important to discuss the youth’s interests, likes and dislikes, strengths, and needs.  We try to individualize everything for each youth to make them successful and independent based on what they want to do in life!

Over 22,000 young people aged out of the foster care system in the United States in 2014.  How many young people age out in South Carolina?

  • During the State Fiscal Year of 2013-2014, 260 youth aged out of care in South Carolina, with an average of 60.3 months in foster care.  6,800 children were served in foster care this year, but only 3,600 were still in care the last day of the fiscal year.
  • During the State Fiscal Year of 2014-2015, 236 youth aged out of care in South Carolina, with an average of 56.2 months in foster care.  7,400 children were served by the foster care system this year, while 3,900 were still in foster care the last day of the fiscal year.
  • Per Adoptions Reports, in the Calendar Year of 2014, South Carolina had 254 youth age out of foster care.
  • Per Adoptions Reports, in the Calendar Year of 2015, South Carolina had 227 youth age out of foster care.

Click here for additional South Carolina numbers between the years of 2011 and 2014.

What happens to these young people? 

The young people that have identified their goals, accepted support, and have been connected to the right resources are able to successfully transition out of care.  They have learned the necessary skills to use their education to obtain and maintain employment to secure housing and transportation.  These young people have been able to make positive connections and create a supportive network to strengthen the path to success.  Some of these young people who leave at 18 find out that it is much harder on their own than they realized it would be.  So, South Carolina practices a policy where young people can come back to DSS within a year of leaving foster care, to come back to a placement.  They sign an After-Care agreement to abide by the rules of their placement, but they are allowed more freedom since they are not technically in foster care, due to being 18.  This way, they will have a safe and stable environment so they can finish high school, work on a GED, start college, or find stable employment to better their future.  All of this without having to worry about rent, monthly utility bills, etc., which is a huge relief to them because they have already tried it once and it was overwhelming.  Or, if they are doing well enough but still need assistance, they do not have to come back into a placement.  They can simply receive After-Care services through Independent Living to get help while they are in school or working, up until age 21. Our program also continues providing post-secondary financial support through ETV (Education and Training Vouchers) funds until the age of 23 if they remain in college.

The harsh reality is that even though services are provided for young people who age out of care, we still have those who would rather remain homeless than ask for assistance.  Others become involved with illegal activities and end up receiving services from another state agency (SCDC) which unfortunately houses too many of our young adults that come out of DSS or Department of Juvenile Justice systems.  We also have the percentage of young people like every other state who become parents, and some of their children will end up in foster care, where they just came from. There are also some young people who end up falling into human and sex trafficking.  Our young people are being targeted and lured into a false sense of family and financial security, since they have already been abused or neglected by a trusted adult.

For a young person who feels they have no options and no potential are vulnerable to the illusion of easy money.  So, yes, we have successes, but we also have those who are not always successful.

What factors are playing against their success?

I would like to introduce a wonderful link that can speak to some of this in detail.

In this collection of data from surveying foster care alumni that the University of South Carolina conducted back in 2015, a lot of eye opening factors can be seen from our young people who leave foster care. The 10 “critical” areas that they discuss for young people transitioning out of foster care are: 1) Employment, 2) Finances, 3) Homelessness, 4) High-Risk Behaviors, 5) Education, 6) Positive Connections, 7) Health Insurance, 8) Loss and Transitions, 9) Independent Living Preparation, and 10) Life Purpose and Inspiration.  Please read through the brochure to get input straight from the young people’s perspectives!

A more in-depth evaluation regarding these findings from their data collection can be found in this report from the University of South Carolina.

Outside of what the young people feel are barriers to being successful, we also have systemic issues that play a part in preventing successful transitions. High caseloads for case managers in South Carolina have been a rising problem for years.  With a recent mandated intervention, the agency has started hiring more case managers to combat that problem.  However, it will still take a while before the problem is eliminated.  Since workers have not been able to provide the individualized attention needed for each of their children and youth in their cases, a lot of our young people’s needs have been ignored or overlooked.

Another issue that we face, which I believe other states deal with as well, is that we have an extreme shortage of foster homes.  South Carolina does not allow children under 6 to be placed in a group home setting any longer, so they have to be placed in foster homes.  Children from ages six to twelve can only be in a group home setting for six months.  So, ultimately, that leaves all of the youth in care thirteen and older to primarily be placed in group homes since foster homes are full with younger children.

This situation, which may be great for some teenagers and young adults who need a community environment to thrive in, does not always lend itself to a successful atmosphere for all youth in foster care.

This is a great example of why youth adoption rates drastically decrease because they are not consistently in a family setting to form family connections and relationships for adoption to occur.  Lack of foster homes is definitely a factor that plays against our young peoples’ success.

How is the SCDSS Independent Living Program trying to help?

The South Carolina DSS Independent Living Program is trying to help our young people who age out of foster care in a variety of ways.  The Independent Living Program ensures that if young people need to come back to a placement, they have that chance and that right to do so.

In 2015, South Carolina’s Independent Living Program branched out by having Regional Advocates for the first time, so we can be more hands-on with young people themselves and by helping case managers understand the process better on how to request services for the young people they serve.  We take the time to train case managers, Guardian-ad-Litems, foster parents, group home providers, and other community partners within our designated regions, to ensure that people not only learn about the program, but that they can share with the young people about all that they can take advantage of while they are in foster care!  We encourage these adults to be better advocates for their young people, while we also meet with the young people… encouraging them to self-advocate and understand how to use their voice in a positive way!

We provide an entire booklet of services and resources to our teenagers while they are in foster care, and also to our young people who age out of care but are still eligible for services (meaning they are still enrolled in school full-time, working full-time, or doing both part-time).  Check out our booklet which shares all of the services and resources we currently provide for our young people.  There is also a youth-friendly version of our booklet.

Do you have any specific stories you would like to share about aging out youth you have known or served?  If so, please do!

A great example would be a young lady who I’ll call Sarah.  She came into care because her father was killed when she was younger, and her mother became incarcerated.  At that time, there were no family members able to care for her.  Back when I was a case manager, I received her case after she had already been in foster care from age 15 to 18.  Fortunately, she had a supportive team on her side which helped lead her to start college down at Charleston Southern University after graduating from high school.  I had the pleasure of helping her receive ETV (Education and Training Voucher) funds to help pay for college her sophomore and junior years of school.  During the summer before her 21st birthday, I was able to help her set up housing while she was on breaks from college, so she could have a home to enjoy away from the dorms.  She received furniture assistance and rental assistance for the summer through the Independent Living program.  We stayed in touch after I left the agency, to find out she got married and now has a three-year-old little girl.

Now that I am back with DSS working with the Independent Living Program, I was able to get Sarah to be our guest speaker at a Fundraising Gala to help other children and youth in foster care with things they want and need to be successful in life!  She proudly shared her story of how foster care isn’t the path she would have chosen, but it was definitely what helped shape her to be the woman, wife, and mother that she is today!  She will be graduating with her Criminal Justice Degree soon and plans to become a social worker to help more youth and children with backgrounds like hers.  Her words were powerful and continue to be a reminder of just how important having support and resources in place for young people leaving foster care literally makes ALL the difference in the world!

How can people help your organization in its efforts?

Individuals from the community, businesses, faith communities, non-profits, etc. can all play a major role in helping DSS make a difference for our youth aging out of the foster care system.

Like I mentioned previously, close to 500 young people aged out of the foster care system, just in South Carolina, within two years!

Think of the difference that can be made now if we had more community involvement from all over, to help these young people who are transitioning into adulthood.  There is an overwhelming number of teenagers in foster care right now who share that they would LOVE to have a mentor.  Yet, there are only a limited number of adults willing to be mentors for this population.  Even just in my region, we have a non-profit working to match up mentors with youth in foster care… but it becomes extremely difficult to find eligible adults in rural areas to match with these young people, longing for a mentor.  This is where individuals, business people, faith communities, and other non-profits can step up and help us out!

Same way with tutors… too many of our youth in foster care struggle in school, due to numerous placement changes, school changes, emotional stress, etc.  Having a tutor has been proven to increase the chances of youth graduating from high school or obtaining their GED.  This way, they do not have to be part of the national statistic of only 50% of young people in foster care actually graduating from high school.  And with only 3% of those young people actually graduating from college… we definitely need to make education a higher priority so our youth can be successful.

In our transition planning with the youth, it would be great to have supports in place from the business world to give them guidance on careers they may be interested in.  Great guidance counselors in high schools and/or adult education offices is desperately needed to help our young people finish high school and move on to the correct college or university to further their education based on their goals and interests.

A new idea we are working to implement throughout the state is having Regional Youth Workshops/Conferences to help youth learn independent living skills as they get ready to transition into adulthood.  We would need to partner with different community leaders to help share different lessons and skills with our young people.  Topics at these workshops and conferences could include everything from budgeting and financial management, proper employment attire and etiquette, housing and transitional costs of being an adult, to successful communication skills.  Having the appropriate community leaders to come in and share about these different skills and topics, allowing the young people to see and hear it from professionals and not just another DSS worker, makes a world of difference.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I previously included links to our Independent Living Booklets, so you can have a better idea of what services and resources we already have in place.  I appreciate the chance to share about our program and what we are doing to help the young people of South Carolina have better odds than the national statistics to become and remain successful for the remainder of their lives.  I have also found the following websites with some further information about young people aging out of care:

  1. This website contains information about the Duke Endowment and Agencies in the Carolinas working to help transitioning young people.
  2. The National Youth in Transition Database website for young people in South Carolina to gain information and assistance about foster care and transitioning out of care.
Debby is a writer and a mom. Debby freelances as a copywriter and content developer in the Upstate of South Carolina, and is passionate about finding homes for children in foster care. She was introduced to foster care by a friend and decided that although she wasn't in a position to foster, she wanted to do more to help find families for children. Now, she reads all books related to fostering and recommends the ones she enjoys so that you can learn about fostering too! Her post format is book review, followed by an interview with someone who can speak to the book's content. Follow her posts if you are just learning about fostering and unsure about how you want to become involved!

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