SEATTLE -- A new bill which passed this legislative session allows foster youth to get care for three extra years, until they are 21, giving disadvantaged teens a better shot at becoming independent, successful adults. Extended foster care will give teens more time to figure out housing, employment and every other detail of adulthood.
Statistic show foster kids need the help. Thirty five percent of foster care youth experience homelessness or housing instability in the first year of aging out. Twenty percent are arrested or jailed within the first year according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
That is why advocates say extended foster care is so important. That extra care each year comes with a nearly $7 million price tag.
Whether it’s dribbling the ball, shooting hoops, playing fetch, or popping the tail of a skateboard. Cal Anderson Park in Seattle provides a home away from home.
“Cal Anderson has always been safe because I wasn’t a burden to anyone here,” said former foster care patient Azia Ruff.
The only place that made sense during the early years of Azia Ruff’s life.
“There was mental health issues in my family. There was substance abuse in my family,” said Ruff.
It all worked to pull Azia’s family apart. Her sense of home life turned hectic.
“Sometimes I would be at my grandma’s house. Sometimes I would be at my mom’s friends house. Sometimes I would be at this motel,” said Ruff.
Because of the many moves, Azia doesn’t have many photos, but she does artwork. Self-portraits, drawings and journal entries that tell her story.
“During this time I was living in motel to motel,” said Ruff.
Even her art therapy couldn’t ease the pain from a brutal reality of homelessness at just 15 years old.
“I was very, very, very tired. I was at a point where I didn’t want to live at all,” said Ruff.
Azia came to Seattle Children’s Hospital after having a mental health breakdown. But she wouldn’t return to homelessness with her mother. Instead, Azia would leave Children’s hospital under the state’s care.
After nine days at Children’s Hospital, Azia immediately went into protective custody.
“It was a big house and there were alarms on the doors and windows so I couldn’t use the bathroom in the middle of the night,” said Ruff.
Her writings reveal the words she could not speak.
“How does one live a happy life when that’s the one thing they’ve been conditioned to believe that’s the one thing they weren’t meant to have?” asked Ruff.
She ended up dropping out of school and moving to the Totem Lake neighborhood of Kirkland.
“I’m just a head and some shoulders at this point you know where’s the rest of me,” said Ruff.
It was her third foster care location, but the first place she could call home.
“I got to do a lot of really important life transitions there and be supported and there were really wonderful people who I lived with there, too,” said Ruff.
Azia was approaching her 18th birthday meaning she would soon age out of government care. That meant a roof over her head wasn’t promised.
“I have my GED, I have like 80 bucks in my saving account, I don’t know anything about credit, the last job I had was at a yogurt shop,” said Ruff.
Because of that, Azia began thinking about a grim alternative.
“It always came back to ugh…you’re going to have to sell your body one day Azia you’re going to have to do it,” said Ruff.
A fear that never turned into a reality because Azia signed up for extended foster care.
“There’s no bad kid there’s kids who need support systems who need help,” said Ruff.
It’s the simple pitch Washington State Senator Reuven Carlyle made to his fellow lawmakers to get Senate Bill 6222 passed. It would allow more kids access extended foster care. A chance for some kids to learn how to build a home of their own independent from the government’s help.
“We force these kids to figure out these bureaucracy, we put these expectations on them that we don’t put on our own kids that might come from intact families,” said Carlyle.
But providing that comes out of taxpayer pockets. The senator’s bill costs roughly seven million dollars a year to help the 600 youth in extended foster care.
“You get a modest cost a couple million dollars a year in a $40 billion budget to provide that kind of high quality wrap around services, housing, education, workforce support training systems,” said Carlyle.
Reports show a third of kids who age out of care at 18 will end up homeless. One in five will call jail a home.
Many believe extending care until the age of 21, will help teens develop tools to pursue their dreams. Azia aged out of extended foster care in January 2018. She now works at the Mockingbird Society advocating for foster care and ending youth homelessness in Olympia in front of lawmakers. Two things she dealt with first hand, but now she finally has the tools to succeed. Even her artwork shows the transition.
“Me sort of realizing I’m not some scroungy little peasant you know? That doesn’t even deserve the scraps of life,” said Ruff.
Azia says the extra three years in extended foster care helped her figure out how she would build her own home. Now, she’s living independently of the government and giving back to the same system that once supported her.
“As I'm washing the dishes in my new apartment and I’m like this is my cup and this is my sink and I'm like this is my apartment,” said Ruff.