Supporting teens leaving foster care

Entering the foster care system when she was 4, Dr. Arethusa Kirk lived in 13 different foster homes.

Despite the constant changing placements while in foster care, Arethusa had a deep wellspring of support from people who cared for her, particularly from teachers and an educational support system that advocated on her behalf. When she reached adulthood, she went on to earn several college degrees, spent time in the Peace Corps and eventually became a pediatrician. She credits her childhood experiences with allowing her to develop the skills to be more comfortable in unfamiliar environments.      

“The changes in my life actually created strength and resilience for change that has worked really well in my career and life,” she said.

Now the chief medical officer for the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Maryland, Arethusa understands the complexity of being a young adult leaving the system and working towards independence – and the fact there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

“No child goes at this alone,” she said. “There were so many people who helped me along the way.”  

Stakeholders in the foster care system, like UnitedHealthcare, have committed themselves to closing the gaps following foster care, particularly for those who did not find a permanent placement through adoption.

Currently, youth are eligible for Medicaid after they leave the foster care system, until the age of 26. Yet barriers can remain, particularly with gaining access to health benefits. According to Sara Goscha, Director of Foster Care for UnitedHealthcare, about 1 in 5 of youth who “age out” of foster care experience homelessness after turning 18. Only half will receive employment by the age of 24, and only 3% to 4% earn a college degree by the age of 26.

To make this shift to adulthood and independence easier, UnitedHealthcare performs a “transition of care” assessment for all member foster youth between the ages of 14 and 18, to help make sure there are no gaps in care.

UnitedHealthcare also offers online resources including a free, mobile-friendly website for members called On My Way, available in 11 states, which is geared towards young people leaving foster care. Foster kids as young as 14 can start to use the site to plan and make goals.

“We've really stepped up to say, ‘We think we can leverage technology to help kids,’” Sara said.

Through quizzes and games, On My Way lets its users unlock badges by learning more about necessary life skills that might have been difficult to pick up while in foster care, as well as various social determinants of health that can affect one’s well-being. Some of those skills include:

  • How do you make a resume?
  • Why should you make a budget?
  • What should you know about STDs?
  • How do you find an apartment?
  • What do I need to know about car insurance?

Having this information can be powerful.

For example, with the health content on the site, Sara said: “We're really saying, ‘We're going to help you know where your health care options are, and that you can go to the urgent care, and that you're not going to be turned away. Those are the things that are really important for that age group because they won't get health care if they don't know.”

On My Way can also act as a virtual “home base” for youth who might not have one otherwise, particularly with vital documents that might be difficult to keep track of.

“Case workers will often tell us, ‘We hand them a file when they walk out the door, and I don't know very many 18 year olds that keep a hold of all their documents,’” Sara said. “So being able to upload them and have a secure area where they can log in with their name and password, and have all those really important documents, it's life-changing for them.”

These tools may provide a sense of stability that may have a huge impact for the young adults who need it.

As for Arethusa, shaped by her experiences as a child in foster care, her passion is to help kids and teens who feel like outsiders fulfill their true potential.

“I want to remind young people that ‘This too shall pass,’” she said. “I know it feels like it never will, especially in those darkest moments. But it does pass. And the most important thing is to know that you are loved, and to love yourself.”    

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