Nearly 40% of youth in foster care have developmental disabilities or delays. Locally, in 2013 almost 200 foster youth 13-17 were receiving disability benefits (SSI). Some are disabled to the extent that they cannot make choices about housing, medical care, finances and legal issues. Once they’ve aged out, these youth have no one to make these critical decisions on their behalf. To protect them as adults, the Probate Court may appoint a plenary or limited guardian. The legal process can only start at age 18; however, for foster youth, preparation must take place in their final years in foster care to ensure seamless oversight and safeguards. If a guardianship is not needed, other protections must be in place prior to a disabled youth’s 18th birthday.
Tracy’s story provides a good example of why plenary guardianships are important: Tracy is 19, has an IQ of 52 and is bipolar. She entered foster care after years of sexual abuse by her father. While a minor, Tracy’s volunteer Guardian ad Litem was interested in becoming her plenary guardian once she aged out of foster care. However, the guardianship case was missing documentation and was not ready for Probate Court when she turned 18. After aging out of care, Tracy became self-injurious and was Baker-Acted. Because she was incompetent to authorize her own treatment and there was no plenary guardian to do so on her behalf, she was kept without medication in a psychiatric facility while experiencing extreme emotional distress due to hallucinations. Eventually, an emergency order was obtained, but Tracy was left traumatized by the experience. If Tracy’s case had been part of FFCR’s project, her guardianship could have been in process and an emergency plan could have been in place by her 18th birthday, saving her the pain and anguish of yet another trauma.
The goals of FFCR’s Transitioning Youth with Disabilities Initiative are to 1) ensure a seamless transition for disabled youth exiting foster care; 2) address individual and systemic issues to improve youth outcomes; and 3) increase community awareness about disabled youth exiting foster care.
To achieve these goals, the CRP conducts case reviews on an ongoing basis for foster youth ages 15 through 17 and assesses each youth’s need for disability-related services and a future guardianship. The CRP recommends court orders regarding identified disabilities and other transition-related issues. During 2013, FFCR volunteers contacted case managers of youth needing a plenary guardian to ensure timely compliance with court orders related to preparing for the legal process at age 18. FFCR staff and volunteers also underwent specialized training in order to gain knowledge about the needs of disabled foster youth who are exiting foster care. FFCR also co-facilitated a work group among system stakeholders serving foster youth with disabilities to promote cross-systems knowledge and coordination and is in the process of authoring a white paper with recommendations for systemic improvement.