catey1

Finding the Way Home After a Parent’s Death

May 24, 2016

Anna Challet

Change is afoot in California’s child welfare system. From Assembly Bill 12 (which allows eligible foster youth to extend their foster care to age 21) to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that foster youth get Medi-Cal coverage until age 26, long-needed improvements are underway for the more than 60,000 California youth in foster care.

But some youth, particularly older teens and young adults, are still falling through the system’s cracks for a variety of reasons. A severe shortage of placements for older youth, who have histories of neglect or abuse and often have mental health needs, has resulted in unstable housing situations that leave them with no one to rely on but themselves. Some bounce between extended stays in group homes or juvenile hall; some are placed with relatives who might not have the financial resources to care for them. Some who should be in foster care, but aren’t, are just ending up homeless.

And more change is coming. Assembly Bill 403 went into effect in January, the goal of which is to phase out the state’s use of group homes. Group homes will be replaced by treatment centers where youth will only stay for a short period of time before being placed in a family setting; the bill provides for recruitment efforts to grow the number of foster parents in the state. How successful these efforts will be remains to be seen.

Young people without stable homes are often determined to take care of themselves, and the safety net can put independence within their reach. But it needs to be strengthened for the ones who are still falling through the cracks.

Catey Stegall, 20, shares a cozy, lamp-lit apartment with college friends in Sonoma County, in a quiet neighborhood filled with trees. It’s a world removed from the group home where she was not long ago, more or less on her own.

She went into foster care after her father died of lung cancer when she was in high school. Her mother had left the family several years prior, and Stegall isn’t sure where she is now.

Initially Stegall went to live with other family members, but she wasn’t getting along with them. Then she went to live with a friend’s parents, but she clashed with them as well.

“When my dad passed away, I just didn’t get a lot of help and I was depressed,” she says. She was eventually placed in a group home in Hayward.

The woman in charge of the home didn’t live nearby, Stegall says; whenever there was a problem, it might take her hours to arrive. There were drug dealers around, and older guys who were friends of her housemates. “They’d ask me when I was going to turn 18,” she says. One day she came home to find her room ransacked and her laptop gone.

“I spent a lot of time just hanging out at the corner store,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t belong here.’”

One of her aunts encouraged her to apply to Sonoma State for college, and she was accepted. She has survivor benefits and AB 12, as well as financial aid and a Chafee Grant (an education grant for eligible foster youth in California).

“Ever since I got to college my life is so much better,” she says. She’s gathered friends around her who have become her chosen family, and for the first time she lives in a place where she feels welcome.

Still, when asked if there’s anything in her past she wishes had been different, she says no – that she’s happy with the person she’s become.

“I think things turned out for the best,” she says. “It was tough before just because I didn’t know how the world works. But if I’d had parents, if I hadn’t gone through any of this, I’d be a different person.”

“A lot of bad things happened but I didn’t have a choice. It taught me to be strong, and I’m really thankful for that.”

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