Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, speaks Wednesday, August 22, 2018, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary hall in Lafayette. The visit was part of a statewide tour to hold community conversations on child welfare and poverty issues.

With Louisiana supporting many foster children even after they turn 18, under a law passed this spring, the state’s foster care providers have coupled with a national nonprofit to simultaneously provide better support of those youth, aimed at improving what happens to them as adults.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services was awarded a $3 million matching grant this fall to implement a case management model that intensively supports youth as they age out of foster care. The grant runs over three years, during which DCFS officials will work with staff from the national nonprofit Youth Villages to train current and new case managers across the state. They'll also partner with local organizations to support their work and sustain the program for future years.

“We knew we were already in the process of expanding foster care and we wanted to be able to do it and do it very well,” said Christy Tate, the child welfare manager over youth programs at Louisiana’s DCFS. “And this was what we selected to get these outcomes. … One of the country’s only programs that show effectiveness with this age group.”

Youth Villages awarded similar grants to children and family organizations in Washington, D.C, Illinois and Los Angeles County; however, only Louisiana and Washington planned to implement the model — called YV LifeSet — directly into their state-run agencies. The other two jurisdictions plan to incorporate the model with local private partners.

This spring, the Louisiana Legislature expanded foster care services for youth aging out of the system — 18-year-olds who have not been permanently adopted — by allocating funds that will support the young adults through their high school graduation or until age 21, whichever comes first. However, the law falls short of supporting all foster youth until age 21, as many advocates hope will come next.

“Louisiana is really committed to doing something new and different for these young people,” said Jessica Foster, the executive director of strategic partnerships for Youth Villages. “They really want to incorporate this model into their practices and improve the quality of their services. … We believe that is a transformative vision.”

Foster said the YV LifeSet model works to bring case workers face-to-face with their older clients more often and provide them with a more intensive support network, helping them with all aspects of their lives from bank accounts to housing to therapy. In the last five years, an average of 160 youth have aged out of foster care in Louisiana each year, according to numbers from the Department of Children and Family Services. Research has shown that youth aging out of the foster care system, especially those without a good support system, are at a higher risk of adversity as adults, including homelessness and unemployment.

“We really want to do something different that helps (the youth) become more independent and improve their outcome for functioning in society,” Tate said. The YV LifeSet model has been shown to increase youth’s employment and earnings and decrease economic hardships, homelessness, mental health issues and violent relationships. 

Currently in Louisiana, Tate said, case managers typically see young adults in the system about once a month and help them to connect with services, usually outside of their direct purview. But, she said, funds and training from Youth Villages should provide youth with direct contact with a case manager about once a week and have their case managers provide many services directly.

“It’s a more intensive case management model,” Tate said. “They’re seeing the youth more often.”

Youth Villages will train DCFS staff to provide services and interventions, like cognitive behavioral therapy and emotional regulation.

“For the young people, it can be exhausting to have to get to know six to seven people to have all their needs met,” Foster said. “With YV LifeSet, we will train the DCFS workers to be cross-responsive.”

Kayana "Keedy" Bradley aged out of foster care herself a few years ago and has become an advocate for other youth like herself. Now 22 and a senior at the University of New Orleans, Bradley has worked to ensure she will not be part of the negative statistics about adults who aged out of the system, but she said it wasn’t easy.

“It was hard to figure out where I was going to stay or how much it was going to cost, or even how I was going to move,” Bradley said, remembering she was too young to sign her lease when she needed a new place at age 18. “It was scary at the time, feeling like I didn’t have anybody to help me out.”

While she had a social worker on her case, she said, that person often changed and they weren’t very active in her life. So she hopes this new grant and model will change those outcomes.

“I think the program is a good start in the right direction to have mentor and leaders to be able to guide the youth,” Bradley said. “They’re not ready to be on their own … . Children are still developing and still learning (at that age). … How can you just send them out on their own and not make sure they had their own support system?”

Bradley is most hopeful that this support will not end after the three years of the grant, and it becomes a cornerstone of the system. Tate said that is their goal and they are working to ensure safeguards, like training their own staff, so its sustainable.

“Sometimes when a program is started in a state, it’s only going for a limited time,” Bradley said. “If we start a program let’s finish it all the way through for the benefit of the youth.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.