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Events like Real World Down East help prepare foster kids for the responsibilities of adulthood and independence.

By Hyun Namkoong

Sadie Harmon is a soft-spoken, petite 21-year-old with a shy smile who spent her senior year of high school living in a group home in the Pender County town of Waccamaw.

“I remember when I was first placed into care. I was just mad,” Harmon said. “Mad at everybody.”

For most students, senior year of high school is filled with excitement and plans for prom. But that wasn’t the case for Harmon, who managed to graduate from high school, though it was a bumpy ride.

Pender County DSS worker Ursula Williams, Rayshawn, 17, and Tavis, 17, talk about what’s appropriate attire for job interviews. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Late last month, Harmon was invited to speak at an event that helps to smooth the road for kids who are in the foster care system in Pender County.

It’s called Real World Down East, and the objective is to teach kids in the system skills that prepare them to be successful in life, such as what to wear for a job interview and how to balance a checkbook.

The Pender County Department of Social Services and Independent Living Resources Inc., a group that works in various areas of youth development, organized the day.

Harmon shared her experience of what it was like when she “aged out” of the foster care system at 18 years old and was faced with the responsibility of caring not only for herself but her 18-month-old baby.

“It’s a big double-whammy – adult life, job, deposits, car insurance and pregnancy,” she said.

“As soon as I graduated, the real world hit me.”

Life happens

Youth who participated in the Real World event were assigned hypothetical salaries and jobs and other life realities such as having a chronic health condition.

Participants had two hours to balance their monthly budget and figure out their living expenses, such as renting an apartment, buying furniture and paying for insurance. They were given a checkbook in which they noted their expenses as they went around tables that represented banking, health and renting services.

Meg, 17, who will go to UNC-G this fall, talks to Nancy Carter and CFNC representatives about loan-payment options. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“It’s a really good life experience. You can’t only spend money on stuff you want,” said Keylizha, who’s 14. “You have to spend it on stuff that you need as well.”

Tables were manned by Pender County DSS employees and organizations such as the College Foundation of North Carolina.

Meg, 17, will go to UNC-Greensboro this fall and was at the CFNC table figuring out loan payments.

“This is really helpful. I feel really good about everything now,” she said.

The young participants soon realized that expenses such as a deposit for an apartment or the costs of pets, gym memberships and even haircuts add up quickly.

Bailey, 17, had $1,550 for her monthly budget and said she doesn’t need fancy electronic gadgets or to get her nails done.

“But I never really thought about [expenses] before,” she said.

On their own

North Carolina currently has more than 14,000 children in foster care who will age out of the child-welfare system once they turn 18 and have to face the real world on their own.

Foster kids are expected to enter adulthood and become fully dependent much earlier than kids in the general population. Research shows that youth in the general population leave their homes at an average age of 23, and, unlike many foster kids, they have the option of returning to the parental nest if their first flight is unsuccessful. The transition to adulthood and independence is much easier with support from loving parents and a stable community.

Arthur Lewis, a social worker with Pender County, promotes the benefits of a gym membership and exercise at the Sports and Recreation booth. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“I need kids to get their hands on what the real world is about before it starts,” said Nancy Carter, Independent Living Resources’ executive director. Carter organizes training workshops for county DSS staff around the state and focuses on “building young people’s capacity to survive well in life.”

Research studies show that foster kids are less prepared for adult life, particularly in terms of educational attainment and life skills. Foster kids often experience interruptions in schooling because they get bumped around into different foster placements. They are more likely to drop out and have higher absenteeism and suspension rates.

Foster kids have a disproportionately high burden of emotional, mental, developmental and behavioral problems. The circumstances that result in children being removed from homes are normally caused by abuse, trauma or criminal activity.

“It was really rough,” Harmon said of her living situation with her relatives before she was placed in foster care. “I was very withdrawn.”

A Pender County DSS employee explains housing options and deposits for apartments to two participants of Real World Down East. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Youth who have been in foster care also have significantly higher rates of arrest, substance use, homelessness and early childbearing.

In 2007, the N.C. General Assembly created a state scholarship fund called N.C. Reach for youth who have been in foster care to attend any of the state’s public universities or community colleges free of charge. As of last year, there was enough money in the program that there was no waiting list for these scholarships.

Also in 2007, legislators approved expanding Medicaid coverage for youth who have been in the system until they are 21 years old.

Scandals with the current foster care system prompted lawmakers to approve legislation to continue closely studying the quality of DSS services and policies for DSS employees who are foster care parents.

Findings from a legislative study committee that met during the past year found that children remain in foster care for an average length of two years.

Carter said that kids age out of the system and go back to the same old, same old.

“If we haven’t done anything with the environment, why would we expect anything to change for these kids?” she asked.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.