On December 31, the Administration for Children’s Services dismantled its program that gave 125 foster teens on the brink of aging out the chance to practice living on their own while still having the support of the foster care system. For more than 10 years, the now-defunct Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP) has provided foster teens aged 18 to 20 what many experts say is essential to any housing program helping young people transition to independence, a chance to try out living on their own, with a safety net to catch them if they get into trouble.
“I thought this was kind of going to be the future for older adolescents in child welfare,” says Green Chimneys Executive Director Joseph Whalen, who had hoped to open 20 more SILP apartments. “I was wrong.”
In an emailed statement to Child Welfare Watch, the ACS press office said ACS’s decision to close the SILP apartments stemmed from its philosophy that young people in foster care are best served living with families. “It can be difficult to transition to independence as an adult, and we believe that a youth should have a family to support him or her throughout each of their lives,” the press office wrote.
Providers speculate a tough year for the budget, confusion about whom to place in SILP apartments, and ACS’s perception that SILP became what one executive director described as “a dumping ground” for young people who did not make it in a family setting contributed to the decision. SILPs cost around $100 a day, says Douglas O’Dell of SCO Family of Services, a foster care agency with more than 500 teens preparing to age out. For the fiscal year ending July 1, 2010, the SILP program cost $4,422,317, with the city paying $1,459,365, or 33 percent, the state paying 41 percent, and the federal government 26 percent.
The SILP program is ending just as other housing resources are vanishing. The federal government has cut off Section 8 vouchers, and they have become more difficult for young people leaving care to secure.
While many providers praise the SILP program as the best option for vulnerable teens, others fault it for giving young people too much independence and too little supervision. Many agencies minimized this risk by filling SILP apartments with their most mature young people√¢‚Ç¨, those who could be trusted to live well on their own. But some providers say that as the number of teens in foster care dramatically shrank over the last decade, a higher percentage of the teens left in the system struggle with histories of serious trauma. “Simply stated, seriously troubled kids and indirect s pervision are not compatible,” Poul Jensen, president and CEO of Graham Windham, wrote in an email.
Others defend SILP. “It provided them with an opportunity to try out their wings and assume adult responsibility, while still offering a safety net,” explains Sister Paulette Lo- Monaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services.
The 125 young people living in SILP apartments budget their own money, shop for groceries, cook their own meals, clean their own apartments, and learn to get along with neighbors and roommates, all while receiving instruction and oversight from caseworkers, who lead workshops on independent living skills and visit them in their apartments regularly. If the teens get into trouble, say, a landlord complains they are playing music too loud and too late at night, instead of facing eviction, they can move back to a more structured setting in the foster care system, until they are ready to try living on their own again.
In March, ACS informed Good Shepherd Services and other foster care agencies operating SILP apartments that all SILP apartments would be closed by the end of the year. The young people who were living in them at the time of ACS’s announcement would either be discharged from foster care or moved to other foster care placements, preferably with families.
Foster care providers and advocates say they are skeptical that they will find families for the majority of the young people in SILPs. Moreover, they say SILP apartments prepare young people to live on their own in an experiential, hands-on way that cannot be matched in any other living situation.
“There are definitely better-than-adequate foster families, but I don’t know if you get the same kind of curriculum built in the way it’s built in SILP,” says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, which runs 15 SILP apartments. Nolan believes that the young people aging out from SILP apartments leave foster care more prepared to live on their own than youth in other foster placements. “They actually are sometimes better equipped than youth who do grow up in families, simply because so much attention is paid to the life-skills curriculum in SILP,” she adds.
O’Dell, who is assistant executive director of SCO, says that 22 of the 23 young adults who aged out of SCO’s SILP apartments over a recent 12-month period left with both income and housing in place. “SILP to me was the best preparation for a young person aging out,” says O’Dell.
Some providers say young people who are most likely to struggle after leaving care are the ones who most need the experience of living on their own while they still have caseworkers to support them. “Some of the worst kids I had, I put them in there to give them a reality check,” says Whalen of Green Chimneys. “We understood it as, ‘Hey listen, here’s an opportunity for kids. We can transition them to independence and keep an eye on them. A lot of them are going to fail, and this is a learning experience,’” says Whalen, adding that when a young person did fail, he simply moved them to a group living situation until they were ready to try again. “These are the kind of things that are powerful teaching moments for kids,” he says.
Priti Kitaria, who represents teens in foster care at Lawyers for Children, agrees.”It’s the best model for youth aging out of care,” she says. “Ideally, that’s where most of my clients would go.”
Velma Frezzell, 21, lived in numerous foster homes as a teen, but says none prepared her for independence the way her year spent in a SILP apartment did. In SILP, says Frezzell, she learned countless things that she believes can only be learned through living them, like the week she and her roommate spent trying in vain to fix a flooded toilet before their social worker explained they needed to call their super. “I thought I was independent, but it showed me independence in a different way,” says Frezzell. “You’re on your own, you don’t have a parent or authority figure telling you what to do, but if you don’t do what you need to do, you’re going to be living in a bad environment, and no one wants to live that way.”
Frezzell now lives in public housing, attends John Jay College full-time and, until just a few days before speaking with Child Welfare Watch, held a steady job as a department-store sales associate. She says her experience in a SILP made her transition out of foster care almost seamless. “I was ready to move out before I was finally discharged,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I wasn’t in it.”