ST. LOUIS • When she turned 17, Mynecia Taylor had mapped out her life.
First, she would leave foster care early. It would free her to live life her way without the obstacles and rules that she felt were holding her back.
Once out of foster care, she’d return to her unpredictable mother — it would be a challenge, but she’d make it work. She’d keep going to Roosevelt High, the fourth high school she’d attended since she went into foster care four years ago. She would keep working part-time jobs to save money. She would graduate Roosevelt. She would go to college.
A year later, like an estimated 20 percent of kids who leave foster care at 18 or younger, the soon-to-be Roosevelt senior class president was homeless. The night after her 18th birthday, she slept in an apartment building stairwell.
As teens who lack permanent placements in foster care approach 17 and 18, many chafe to leave a system they did not want to be a part of in the first place. Emboldened by years of living apart from family, some think they can do better on their own. But once out, they find they have no safety net when things go wrong.
“Now I feel like, well, gosh, I should have just stayed in the system,” Mynecia said of her early departure from foster care. “I would have had more help versus no help.”
Missouri allows foster youths to remain wards of the state until they are 21, entitling them to housing and other programs. And yet, despite those benefits, 237 youths in their 18th year left Missouri foster care during the most recent fiscal year, 51 of them on their 18th birthday. Once out, there’s little chance of getting back in.
A bill filed in Jefferson City by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, would change that. The proposal would enable former foster youths to re-enter state custody up to age 21.
“Allowing kids back in until age 21 can make all the difference for a young man or woman who makes the shortsighted decision to leave the system early,” Justus explained in a text message response to questions. “It’s no different than the parents who allow their kids to move back home for a couple of years when the kids realize that the world is a lot tougher than they anticipated. The only difference is, these kids don’t have parents. As Missouri citizens, we are their parents.”
Justus said that besides being a legislator, she is a lawyer who represents children in the foster care system and knows the risks that those who age out are less likely to continue their education and find jobs and more likely to become homeless , unemployed, imprisoned or face an unwanted pregnancy.
Child protection advocates say it would be a step toward improving a system they say fails young adults emerging from foster care.
“The state has stepped in to be the parent for children without family. To the extent we are the parents, we have to take that seriously, and we don’t do that by shutting them out at the first opportunity,” said Clark Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s school of social work.
Mark Courtney, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, noted that in the last U.S. Census, about half of adults between 18 and 24 were living at home with one or both parents. Studies show young people today get about $38,000 in direct support from their parents or relatives between the ages of 18 and 30.
“Almost no one these days is expected to be independent at the age of 18,” he said.
When Mynecia turned 17, she persuaded the judge in charge of her foster care placement to let her go back to her mother.
Studies estimate about 75 percent of children who opt out of foster care go back to the family they were removed from because they long to reconnect.
“They try to go back home, but the family is not ready for it,” said Susan Wagener, CEO of Covenant House Missouri. “They end up running away from home or the family kicks them out.”
In Mynecia’s case, the judge had his doubts.
“The judge warned me, ‘There’s no going back,’” Mynecia said.
But Mynecia was drawn to her mother and her younger brother. When she was in foster care, she would skip out on her foster families to see her brother at her mom’s house. Her visits were supposed to be supervised by caseworkers, but Mynecia said the visits were too infrequent.
“I could not be myself I could not see him,” she said.
She had similar feelings about her mother.
“Anyone who is in foster care feels, no matter what the mother does to them, they still find comfort and belonging in their mother’s presence,” she explained. “I’ve always made it a point to respect her.”
But her reunion with family quickly went sour after Mynecia left foster care.
Mynecia said her mother told her to leave after she was expected to contribute more money than the teenager could earn and go to school.
From there, she crashed on couches and floors of other relatives until her welcome ran out. She commuted long distances so she could stay at Roosevelt High. She even split up her belongings among different people so she didn’t run the risk of losing everything — such as her nicer clothes for job and college interviews.
But she hit a dead end the day after her 18th birthday.
An agreement to stay with her sister in exchange for daily child care broke down when Mynecia chose to return to Roosevelt for her senior year.
Despite her wits, despite her jobs, despite a 3.4 GPA, despite her work in a college readiness program, despite being elected Roosevelt’s senior class president, Mynecia spent the night in a stairwell.
“It puts a lot of things in perspective when you are homeless,” she said from a conference room in Covenant House, a St. Louis homeless shelter for teenagers on North Kingshighway that took her in.
Mynecia lives in dorm-like housing under far more restrictive rules than if she had stuck it out in foster care and waited for a subsidized transitional living apartment.
“At 17, I didn’t really, truly understand the logistics and difficulty of what I was doing,” she said. “Judging by the past, it really wasn’t a good idea relying on being with my mother and believing that everything was going to be perfect.”
NO SAFETY NET
Opting back in to state foster care could qualify Mynecia for a variety of services. They include a small clothing allowance, transitional housing and continued oversight of a Family Support Team to help her make life decisions and connect her to services such as Medicaid.
In Missouri, older youths who are in state custody on their 18th birthday qualify for Medicaid until they are 21. Mynecia lost out because she left the system at 17. And though she may still be Medicaid-eligible due to her low income, she concedes she hasn’t tried.
“These systems are not easy to navigate, and to navigate them on your own when you’re already under duress because of a lack of housing and a lack of transportation — you may be eligible for Medicaid, but being able to access it is another story,” said Mary Chant, CEO of the Missouri Coalition of Children’s agencies, which supports Justus’ bill.
Mynecia’s early departure from foster care cut her off from another prized government support: college aid.
Under Missouri law, any teen in foster care on the day before they turn 18 is eligible for a full tuition waiver at all state-supported colleges. Mynecia also lost out on federal college grants targeted to foster youths. Had she stayed in six more months, she would have qualified.
While Justus’ bill would offer a range of services to those like Mynecia, state officials estimate the legislation would cost only about $100,000 a year. The Legislature has also shown a willingness in recent years to extend services to older foster youth.
While there are about 850 former Missouri foster youths aged 18 to 20, officials predict only five will re-enter in a year. That’s because most who opt out eventually drop off the radar of the courts and their caseworkers. And they often don’t know their options. Other youths, disgruntled with the rules, want no part of the system even when they fall on hard times.
If lawmakers approve the bill, Missouri would be one of just a handful of states nationwide to allow children a direct line back into foster care at any point until they turn 21. The state allows juveniles under 18 who left foster care early to petition the juvenile court for permission to come back. But that right ends at age 18.
There is also no guarantee a judge will grant re-entry for those under 18 since they previously begged to leave. The state does not track whether teens re-enter the system, yet those who work with foster youth say it’s very rare.
Under Justus’ bill, the juvenile or a caseworker may petition the court for re-entry up to age 21.
At least three cities —New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — encourage teens to stay in a foster care system that includes residential and foster family options through 21, said Courtney.
In Chicago, judges have been so assertive about keeping children in foster care that about 85 percent stay until they are 19.
The practice pays for itself, Courtney said. His research suggests youths who had the option of staying in an active state custody system to 21 were twice as likely to have a year of college by the time they are 21. Young women were less likely to get pregnant before 21. And earnings by their mid-to-late 20s were significantly higher.
PULLING IT TOGETHER
Mynecia’s accomplishments in school have come despite several hurdles. At one point, she switched schools four times in less than two years, as disagreements with foster parents saw her move between eight homes and residential centers.
On a recent week, the senior class president studied for her ACT in hopes of bringing her scores up. That same week she shook off a bad cold and took two buses and MetroLink one late afternoon for her job at a store in Chesterfield Mall. And she also found time to brainstorm with Allison Mallory, her counselor at Roosevelt, about how to get her fellow seniors to pay their $200 dues so they can have graduation in a special hall, not the high school auditorium.
“You can tell she’s just so serious,” said Mallory. “She said, ‘Mrs. Mallory, here I am trying to sell candy. I’m trying to do this and that so I can earn money to go visit the college I want to see, and yet they can’t come up with $200.’”
Mycencia has already been accepted at a university in Missouri, but she is awaiting news on Xavier University of Louisiana. She hopes to visit soon.
“She knows she can’t depend on anybody but herself,” Mallory said. “So she has to do what she has to do to make it.”