At first glance, the hundred or so teens who’ve come to a conference called “Youth Days for Independent Living 2000” seem typical enough. In a campus building at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, girls do morning touch-ups in a bathroom, applying lip gloss and trussing hair. Meanwhile, boys in baggy jeans mill about the lobby, wolfing down donuts and talking hoops.

Despite their casual air, these youth have a lot on their minds–stuff most typical youngsters don’t have to deal with. Their lives have been riddled with the trauma of physical and sexual abuse, wanton neglect and abandonment by their biological parents. In the wake of those shattering experiences, social workers, group-home counselors and foster parents have tried to give them care and guidance.

But now these mostly 16- to 18-year-olds are aging out of the foster-care system. And unlike the average youngster today who, national studies show, won’t become self-sufficient until age 26, these adolescents are working against a much faster clock.

While preparing for life on their own, the youth at this conference will attend workshops on topics such as money management and resume writing. They’ll even meet business professionals who’ll conduct mock job interviews and offer feedback. But as they embark on their futures, it’s evident that these young folks are still coming to grips with their pasts.

“There were five of us, but when my mom left for Detroit she didn’t take me and my brother,” says Bernard, a 17-year-old high school senior from nearby Greensboro. As a board member of a statewide foster-youth support group called “SaySo” (Strong Able Youth Speak Out), Bernard describes how his abandonment led to growing up in group homes. “Sometimes,” he says, “God puts you in a position where you have to overcome obstacles, and if you can’t do that you’re just S.O.L.”

Titters fly across the room, causing sparks to fly from Bernard’s hooded hazel eyes. “Y’all know what I’m saying–and I’m not scared to talk, to tell the truth.” Bottom line, says Bernard, is that “people going into the system or coming out have to keep a strong mind.”

At 19, fellow SaySo board member Jen Painter is already doing what Bernard says he intends to do: go to college. But, the UNC-Chapel Hill student tells the group that “while a lot of people are eager to turn 18 and get out on their own, it ain’t that easy.” For starters, Painter says, there’s a stigma attached to foster youth as being social outcasts. “People look at us like we’re different, like they don’t understand us.” But, she adds pointedly, “there’s always a way to make it through.”

The declaration is met with nods and applause, but judging from the blank looks on many of the teens’ faces, the way they’ll make it in the world is very uncertain. It’s not that they aren’t ready to try–their presence at this conference says otherwise. Rather, it has to do with gaining acceptance into the same mainstream that’s labeled them unwanted and, as Painter said, “different.”

“They get treated like ‘untouchables,’ and people think they’re just going to suck your money or your energy,” says Jennifer Toth, a former News & Observer reporter and author of the book, Orphans of the Living. While doing case studies in North Carolina and other states, Toth discovered that despite their pasts, most foster youth “don’t see themselves as tragic.” The real tragedy, she says, is that foster kids get marginalized by society, and that even many of their supporters “don’t expect them to go on to college or be productive.”

It should come as no surprise that such low expectations can have damning effects. While appearing on national television programs like The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Toth has discussed the risk former foster kids run of becoming homeless, or criminals, or–perhaps saddest of all–cyclical perpetrators of child abuse and neglect. And while the system can help give foster youth life skills, Toth also urges more public support to help “these kids see the good in themselves–to know that they aren’t throwaways.”

Jen Painter grew up in Gastonia in the 1980s, where she was surrounded by folks whose lives were devoted first to Jesus Christ, then to their jobs as truckers, sales clerks and beauticians. In their spare time, those adults raised children.

Painter’s parents took turns abdicating their responsibility for her and her older sister. At age 10, long after her mom had divorced her father and dropped out of sight, Painter’s dad literally dumped the girls on their mom’s new doorstep because his new girlfriend didn’t like kids. Apparently, the girls had traveled light.

“We didn’t even have a toothbrush,” Painter recalls. Taking a break from her administrative duties at Independent Living Resources, a Durham-based nonprofit that helps train foster-care youth and workers, Painter talks about how she became a foster child.

Composed and mature for her 19 years, Painter remembers days when she and her sister “would come home [from school] starving, and we’d have to eat raw bacon out of the fridge because we didn’t know how to cook. My sister even ate coffee grounds.”

“I remember that well,” says Painter’s sister, Stephanie Hackney. The 21-year-old, who still lives in the western part of the state, laughs sharply before declaring that, to this day, she cringes when she speaks of bacon.

Bad as it sounds, the girls didn’t complain–mainly because the neglect “had been going on for so long, from such an early age,” Hackney says, “that it was just a kind of an acceptance.”

While the sisters accepted their fate, the neglect prompted their paternal grandparents to take their mom to court. Painter wasn’t surprised when her mom didn’t fight the custody case, but says that despite getting much better care from the older couple, she never felt at home with them.

At 15, Painter moved back in with her dad, separating for the first time from her 17-year-old sister. It was a bad move.

“I wanted a relationship with him,” Painter says, harking back to years of being without a father. “But,” she says haltingly, “he took advantage of the way I felt.”

Painter’s deep-set brown eyes glaze over as she recalls long chats where father and child would go off “sneaking, smoking cigarettes together.” Mostly, they talked about Painter’s rocky relationship with her stepmother, whose punishments for the slightest infractions seemed unfair to the young teen. Gradually, though, those “big buddy” talks turned into acts of sexual molestation–acts which were repeated for almost a year.

Afraid to tell anyone, the teenager buried herself in her studies. “I was a straight-A student,” Painter says proudly. “School was always the one thing that I had. It was my refuge.” Still, the abuse was taking a toll on Painter. Emotionally “a mess,” she told her sister Stephanie, who’d begun to suspect something was off-kilter.

“She immediately told my grandparents, and they confronted my dad,” Painter recalls, her voice slightly acidic as she describes her father’s vehement denials to his parents. Later, she says he simply told her, “‘I didn’t realize it bothered you so much.’”

While the molestation stopped after that, Painter says her stepmother demanded that she see a therapist–but made her own position on the matter was quite clear.

“She looked me straight in the face and said, ‘I’m supporting your father 100 percent, whether he did it or not.’”

The lopsided attempt to get Painter some help led to even more trauma. “The counselor told [her parents] everything,” Painter says, her brown eyes flashing angrily. “When we got home–I remember this better than anything–my stepmom threw three trash bags on my bedroom floor and told me to start packing.” Afterward, Painter recalls hearing her stepmom screaming, “I don’t care where she sleeps, I want her out of my house!”

That night, Painter’s belongings were thrown out into the front yard, and she was ordered to follow suit. As the 16-year-old sat outside, crying and in a state of confused outrage, social-service workers (who’d been tipped off by the therapist) drove up to the house.

Painter was taken to a teen crisis shelter, but says she “felt like I didn’t belong there because all the kids were drug addicts or runaways.” Worse, Painter soon discovered that she couldn’t return to school because the shelter couldn’t provide transportation. “I just felt like, ‘What’s this? Why is this happening?’–I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Most of the 5,200 children in North Carolina who enter child welfare custody each year (a third of whom are over age 13) probably feel the same way Painter did. After being beaten, molested, starved, abandoned or otherwise abused and neglected, such youth are often “rescued,” only to find themselves in bureaucratic limbo. They have little or no say regarding their living arrangements and, until recent years, older youth like Painter had few resources to help prepare them for adulthood.

Today, the state Department of Health and Human Services routinely offers foster teens life-skills training, as well as (limited) financial aid for tuition and housing. It’s worth noting that until recently those vital services relied almost solely upon federal grants. But with the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, states were required to provide matching funds–or risk losing their take of a $140 million pot. Thus, to secure almost $2 million from the feds, the General Assembly had to pony up $500,000 this past spring.

“It was chump change–they give away millions in pork,” says Paula Wolf, chief lobbyist for the child-advocacy coalition, Covenant with North Carolina’s Children. Still, Wolf is “grateful” to state leaders because, she says, the half-million toward independent living programs for foster youth is “more than we’ve ever done before.”

By way of saying thanks, Jen Painter had urged conference attendees to sign a notebook that will be presented to the General Assembly this fall. Among other things, the youth wanted to remind state legislators that there are faces and names attached to the more than 11,000 kids currently in foster care statewide.

Nice gesture that it is, the notebook, filled with looped script and smiley faces, won’t tell legislators–or the public–just how difficult it is to build solid lives out of emotional and physical shards. What’s more, it won’t help people understand that while state intervention is often vital to their survival, it is by no means a cure-all.

“The pendulum in foster care has made wide swings,” says Joan McAllister, who’s been coordinating independent-living programs for the state since 1995. “For a long time, laws said that agencies had to make reasonable efforts to get kids back home,” a goal that didn’t change as kids got older. But, McAllister adds, kids who returned to so-called rehabilitated homes were “getting hurt, beaten to death or maimed” by parents whose bad ways hadn’t changed.

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed, allowing parental rights to be terminated within 12 to 15 months after kids were taken into custody. For social-service workers, that meant not just finding more permanent placements for youth, but also better planning to help older youth transition into adulthood.

Since the early ’90s, independent living programs have been made available to youth leaving foster care. But according to a 1998 report, the state Division of Social Services found that many youngsters leaving foster care lack support outside the DSS, and experience early failure in their experience as adults. It goes on to state that “far too many [youth] end up in prison, in mental hospitals or in the homeless population.”

One reason, some folks say, is that many former foster kids never get stabilized before they are released from custody. In fact, current reports from the state show that some 20 to 30 percent of foster kids live in more than one setting during a year. Still others–about 20 percent each year–wind up classified as “missing,” presumably runaways.

That disheartening news isn’t helped by the fact that the one constant in foster kids’ lives–their social workers–frequently juggle 20 or 30 cases, making it practically impossible to help youth prepare for life on their own. Besides, McAllister asks rhetorically, “if you’re working on placements and permanency planning, where are you going to spend your time?”

Since the system can’t supply all their needs, advocates say foster youth must have other avenues of support–starting with foster parents.

After living in the crisis shelter for three weeks, Jen Painter was placed with a foster family who, she says, “made a difference in my life.” Besides getting her back in school, Painter says her foster parents “gave me lunch money, even though I qualified for free lunch. It seems like a small thing, but it was big to me.” The gesture, Painter says, made her “feel like I was a normal person.”

And Painter was determined to live a normal life. With the help of supportive adults who seemed to care about her welfare, Painter set about bringing order to her chaotic past.

In 1999, while she was a high-school senior, Painter worked at fast-food restaurants to save up for her own apartment. At 18, she was already living on her own when she graduated with honors–ranking 10th out of 275 students.

The next step, Painter says, was college. When applying to UNC-Chapel Hill, Painter had to write an essay about an obstacle she had to overcome. Laughing, she quips, “I nailed that one down.” The essay, combined with her grades, netted Painter a full academic scholarship.

It wasn’t the scenario some folks in Gastonia had pictured for Painter. “After I went into foster care, there were rumors that I was pregnant or on drugs,” she says. “I figure I owe it to them to prove them wrong.”

A strong, almost defiant desire for success undoubtedly helps many former foster kids move forward with their lives. Of almost 300 youth across the state who aged out of foster care last year, social-services officials report that 65 percent were in stable homes, 80 percent had finished high school and 11 percent had gone on to college.

On the flip side, however, 14 percent of those youth had dropped out of school, another 14 percent were homeless and 4 percent were incarcerated–and that’s not counting the roughly 23 percent of youth who couldn’t be tracked down.

Greater accuracy in tracking such statistics, and nudging them in a more positive direction, is no longer a goal for social-service agencies–it’s a requirement. The fine print of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 says that states like North Carolina–which has $2.4 million this year compared to less than $1 million in ’95–must report on the outcome of independent-living initiatives.

“How are [social-service agencies] gonna do that?” McAllister asks. “They’ll have to go out to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They’ll have to get out there and find the kids, because they sure ain’t gonna come back in.”

Knowing that youth may not want to return to a system that’s perceived as flawed, overburdened and, perhaps worst of all, symbolic of their trauma, McAllister says public agencies are collaborating with family resource centers and other places where young adults can get support with day care, jobs and counseling. “It’s less threatening than going to the welfare department,” she says.

When she went in search of additional support, Painter not only joined SaySo, but also began working at Independent Living Resources. There, Painter is learning to help conduct training statewide not just for foster youth, but for social-service providers, counselors and foster parents as well.

“We do it all,” says Nancy Carter, executive director for the agency, which also acts as an umbrella of sorts for SaySo. While she works closely with McAllister, Carter is always looking to broaden her outreach. Stressing the need for more public support, Carter walks an imaginary tightrope. “It’s like these kids are on this line,” she says, “and they can go either way.”

Nobody knows that better than the kids themselves. But even as they try to overcome harsh personal experiences, they don’t want to be perceived as downtrodden outcasts.

“Despite our placement in foster care, we are not different,” writes Keniel Simpson, an 18-year-old from New York whose essay appeared in a recent issue of Fostering Perspectives, a North Carolina newsletter. “We are not aliens,” Simpson continues, “we are not thieves, offenders, and disillusioned or malicious individuals. We are young adults with dreams, goals and ambitions, just like you.”

Those words provide a sharp, hopeful contrast to the data. Last year, the state received more than 63,000 reports of abuse or neglect, and of those, almost 32 percent–involving more than 37,000 children–were substantiated, resulting in anything from parental monitoring and counseling to immediate removal.

“That’s up 12 percent from the previous year,” remarks Paula Wolf. Those numbers, Wolf says, are one reason lawmakers doled out $500,000 for independent-living programs despite the drained budget surplus after Hurricane Floyd.

Along with a new legislative commitment, Wolf says she hopes the public will take to the issue with “new zeal, because it’s an investment in youth who are going to be part of this society. I know it sounds trite to say ‘It takes a village,’ but it’s all of our responsibility.” While doing her part to ensure that foster kids get training and services to help them become self-sufficient, Wolf says she hopes to see more kids get the moral support they need to succeed.

“After all,” Wolf asks, “why is it that some people rise up when you’d never expect them to? They’ll all tell you there was one person who cared about them, if they got up, lived or died.”

“If no one was behind me to push me, I wouldn’t have even thought about college,” Bernard had told the Youth Days 2000 crowd. While life in a group home for the past five years hasn’t been easy for the high school senior, Bernard says counselors and peers have helped him recognize his potential. “I always knew I could write and draw,” he says, “but I never knew I was good.”

Even with her gritty resolve and “absolute determination to succeed,” Painter admits that having a support system helps. “I never wanted to be considered a typical foster kid, so even though I’d heard about independent-living programs, I didn’t go to meetings,” she says. That changed when Painter discovered the foster youth advocacy group SaySo where, unlike the teen shelter, she connected with “other kids just like me.”

Nowadays, while considering a future in psychiatry or journalism, Painter says she’s ready for the mainstream. “I’m succeeding,” she says. “I’m happy with my life.” EndBlock