As Alaska's statewide independent living coordinator, Jefty Prather has a lot of ground to cover.
For the Office of Children's Services (OCS), Prather and his four regional independent living specialists work to safeguard the futures of kids aging out of the foster care system in a State more than twice the size of Texas, but with a total population of just 670,000-less than San Francisco.
In such a vast but sparsely populated environment, collaboration isn't just a nice bonus, it's crucial to keeping young people safe. Without the support of transitional living programs (TLPs), Native organizations, and local communities, Prather's job would be not just challenging, but impossible.
About 200 youth in Alaska's foster care system are between the ages of 16 and 20; and about 40 age out of the system each year. While OCS can keep youth in custody until age 19 and even allows them to stay on until 20, "that doesn't happen very often," Prather says. "Most of them don't want to be in custody after they're able to leave." But, he says, sometimes his office can make a difference: "To a few of them we're able to say, 'Oh, man, do you really want to do this? Because you're not really prepared to be on your own.'" On a good day, the youth heeds that advice.
It is at that critical time that Alaska's TLPs come into play. Currently, there are only three TLPs in the entire State, offering about 50 beds. Juneau Youth Services (JYS) in the State's capital of Juneau and Covenant House in Anchorage are the largest. They both provide numerous services to homeless youth, including street outreach, shelter, life skills, and job training and education assistance. "We desperately need their programs to put our youth into when they leave custody, when they're not ready to live on their own," Prather says.
Many parts of Alaska are accessible only by air or sea. For youth in these remote areas, communication is the key. "As huge as Alaska is, there's a lot of sharing of information," Prather says. "So the resources that are available, most people know about them." If a regional coordinator knows a youth is about to leave custody, the phone calls begin—to see if there are any available beds at the TLPs.
TLPs are used to getting these calls. "We're a very tight knit community in terms of State agencies, the city, the school district, the behavioral health organizations," says John Heimbuch, community services director at JYS. "One of the nice things about a place like Juneau is, many of these people on your teams are also your neighbors, so it's relatively easy to know who to call."
Many foster care youth also arrive at TLPs directly from the streets. "We have a lot of youth that, when they leave OCS, don't want to be involved with us again," Prather says. "But, on the other hand, they know about the homeless shelters for youth and they're comfortable going there." When the shelter determines the youth was formerly in foster care, they then contact OCS. "They know that there are funds available that we can help them with," he says, "and we can coordinate to provide services and training."
The State's Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP) and Covenant House TLP, for example, collaborated on a grant from the Department of Labor through the Workforce Investment Act to hire an employment coach and mentor. This person provides additional life skills training in areas like finding a job, resume writing and interviewing, and then keeping a job once employed. "Our youth tend to be more difficult to maintain in jobs sometimes, because they don't have a lot of work history and things like that," says Prather. "So, they require a little bit more hands-on support than most of the job training programs have available." With the help of this grant, both CFCIP and TLP youth get some extra guidance.
Otherwise, Alaska's OCS does not provide funding directly to TLPs that are serving former foster care youth. The State's Chafee funding earmarked for room and board is distributed through independent living funds, directly to the youth. Employed youth who cannot afford rent can apply for these funds that will cover 100 percent of their first two months' rent, 50 percent of the third month, and 25 percent of the fourth month.
Foster youth who are in a TLP can apply for independent living funds to use for things such as small furniture, household goods, tutors, cultural development and sometimes, even travel. A few years ago, these funds were used to bring a youth to JYS from a remote village to live in a supervised apartment and learn various life skills. She then returned to her home community to live independently.
Fortunately, case managers can help youth with making decisions about using independent living funds. “We will help them use thamoney wisely,” says Rick Driscoll, family services program coordinator at JYS. “We will help them do things like secure a deposit for a rental or identify education needs—to use the money in a manner that’s beneficial.”
Once in a TLP program, Prather notes that “youth are very good about contacting us when they need us.” There is also a youth advisory group, Facing Foster Care in Alaska, made up of current and former foster youth who meet quarterly to recommend improvements to the State’s foster care system. Prather attends these meetings and notes that they are a good way to keep up with everyone and make sure they are doing well.
Another collaboration that Prather’s office calls upon is with tribal communities. Over 60 percent of the youth in Alaska’s foster care are Native Americans, so it’s important to work with those communities in providing services. In the Juneau area, the Tlingit and Haida tribes operate their own central council government, and OCS works with them and JYS to provide independent living skills classes to youth in both transitional living and independent living situations from both communities.
In Anchorage, Southcentral Foundation is an Alaska Native-owned healthcare organization that operates a TLP with 12 beds. Many youth leaving foster care head to this program, which serves Alaska Native and American Indian youth in an environment that, according to Prather, feels like a family. That environment is beneficial because many Native youth “come from really small villages—where they’re used to having more extended family and cultural connections—so they kind of need that,” he says.
The primary challenge facing Prather’s office is probably universal in the TLP/CFCIP world: “We just don’t have enough beds.” There used to be more than the current three programs, but funding and city subsidization come and go. A new TLP is currently starting up in the city of Sitka, so soon there will be four. Prather realizes Alaska’s remote location and small population don’t help matters.
Despite the fiscal and geographic challenges, Prather is positive about the services his independent living group and their network of TLPs and communities provide. “Everybody works really hard at it, and I think that, for the most part, we’re pretty successful,” he says. Small town spirit in the Nation’s largest State.