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Group assists young adults who age out of foster care

By: Andy Kozlowski | C&G Newspapers | Published May 30, 2013

METRO DETROIT — For many, the plight of foster children is something unseen, handled by the state while those fortunate enough to have families go about their lives.

But what happens when those in foster care age out of the system and suddenly find themselves out of sight, out of mind for the state, as well?

There are more than 14,000 children in foster care through Michigan’s Department of Human Services. More than 40 percent of that number is in the tri-county area, the majority in Wayne County. 

Looming over each of their heads is the date they no longer receive assistance from the state, usually around age 21. That’s when they will be left to fend for themselves, with no family to turn to for guidance or support. 

Life after high school is a source of great anxiety for these children, who already suffer acute feelings of abandonment. Any sense of stability is fleeting as they move from one place to another. And their caseworkers don’t always have the time to drive them to school or make sure they have the right supplies, much less play the role of a parent.  

Recognizing the difficulty of this situation, the Park West Foundation formed in 2006 with the express purpose of aiding such individuals. Since then, it has assisted more than 500 young adults with matters of finance, clothing, housing, education and employment. Their focus was originally women, but now they also assist men aging out of foster care.

They also collaborate with a number of organizations to provide support services, such as crisis response, prevention and intervention; family preservation and life skills; teen parenting; and even worship opportunities through Life Directions, a program that provides exposure to different views of spirituality.

Without groups like the Park West Foundation, “Some would age out straight to the streets, and they’re the most likely to get in trouble and wind up in prison, since no one is caring for them or watching for them,” said Saba Gebrai, director of the Park West Foundation. “There is no stability or career path, no parents explaining what to do.”

Jasmine Uqdah, 22, found guidance through the Park West Foundation when she aged out of the system. Uqdah entered the state’s foster care system in 1997 and remained there until her biological mother reclaimed her in 2001. Her mother then gave her up again in 2005, returning her to the foster care system.

“I’ve been in at least 24 different foster homes,” Uqdah said. “I’m more adaptable to my environment because I’ve grown used to moving, being in a new environment and blending in with everyone else so I don’t stick out like a sore thumb as ‘the foster child.’”

What she wasn’t ready for was when her case closed at age 19.

“I had to figure out where I was going to live, how I was going to provide for myself, how I was going to go to school, transportation, and things like that,” Uqdah said. “Straight out of high school, I went to Wayne State University, and I had to figure out how to get a dorm and pay for tuition. … It was hard, since I was worried about so much more than the other students were. But one thing foster care has taught me is when you’re forced into a certain situation, either you figure it out, or you fail, and after a while, you get tired of failing, so it becomes automatic, figuring things out.

“Others (in foster care) go about it the wrong way, though,” she said. “They become thieves since they have no one to help them.”

Uqdah went through a rough spell when, in 2010, she found herself unable to pay for her dorm at Wayne State. She tried her luck moving in with the mother who had given her up, but the arrangement didn’t work out well. That’s where the Park West Foundation got involved, helping Uqdah to transition to another house, and providing therapy to sort out the angst she was feeling in her situation. Life Directions also helped her to reflect and find inner peace. 

“My past is my past; it made me who I am today,” Uqdah said. “My mother and I have a really good relationship now; it just took some time to work things out.”

She also feels stronger for what she’s gone through.

“Foster care children have to think outside the box just to survive and provide,” Uqdah said. “I think we’re very strong because of that.”

That’s not to make light of the challenges that come with the foster care system, or being left to fend for herself upon aging out of the system. Uqdah is well-adjusted, continuing her education at Oakland Community College, but not every foster child finds their way. According to Gebrai, the system needs to improve, doing more to solicit feedback from foster children to ensure their needs are met now and after foster care, and conducting follow-up with those who have been reunited with family, as well as those who have been adopted.

But government alone can’t handle it, she said.

“We need a system, run not just by government but by good people, who can mentor, who can make care packages, who can provide respite care, stepping in for the foster parents several times a week or during the holidays,” Gebrai said. “We have young people who are growing up without feeling like anyone loves them or cares whether they live or die. We need to change that.”

For more information about the Park West Foundation, including how you can help, call (248) 354-2343 or email info@parkwestfoundation.org.