Program at Mather aids former Sacramento County foster kids

By the time he left foster care, Willis Mucelroy estimates, he had lived in 30 foster homes across the Central Valley.

He ended up homeless, sleeping behind a south Sacramento community center earlier this year.

Then Mucelroy, 20, found a program that tries to change the destructive path that foster children often take when they reach adulthood.

Run by Volunteers of America, the Laverne Adolfo program provides housing in 50 apartments on the former Mather Air Force Base, along with education, employment and mental health services.

Fifty of the state's 58 counties provided such services for 2,200 people last year. But the future of those programs is murky as counties face budget pressures and the state has begun extending foster care beyond age 18, raising questions about the need for transitional housing.

The Adolfo apartments at Mather are nondescript, a reflection of their previous status as officers quarters. Inside, the apartments look like college dorm rooms, filled with Ikea furniture and lined with posters of musicians and actors. Adolfo was one of the first California transitional housing programs for former foster youth after a 2001 state law. That legislation created standards for transitional housing programs, expanded the number of people who could be served and authorized funding.

In approving the law, legislators cited a list of problems facing emancipated foster children: homelessness, unemployment and lack of a high-school diploma.

The Adolfo program, named after a woman who provided foster care to many children in the Sacramento area, accepts only former foster children who don't have a secure place to live.

Across the state, social workers interview youths right before they leave foster care to better understand what happens to them. In the past four years, 16 percent of the 614 youths who left foster care in Sacramento County said they didn't have arrangements for a new home, according to figures from the state Department of Social Services.

About half of the same group did not have a high school diploma, and less than a quarter of them had a job, statistics show. In each of these indicators, Sacramento County foster youth fared worse than their counterparts statewide.

Adolfo residents have difficulty becoming self-sufficient because of emotional turmoil, said program manager Janice Montgomery.

Foster children are typically removed from their birth parents because of abuse and neglect. Add to that a history of getting moved to multiple foster homes, and students at Adolfo are often angry, distrusting and lack self-esteem, she said.

As a result, some aren't ready for Adolfo's requirements, which include attending classes held daily on-site, trying to get a job or enrolling in college or a high-school equivalency program, Montgomery said.

Caseworkers are assigned to assess residents' needs and goals and to ensure they make progress. The main goal: Make participants self-sufficient after two years at Adolfo, when they are expected to move out.

Muhammad Haqq, 20, said he was once kicked out of Adolfo because he got upset with a staff member for not helping him when he was hurt in a bike accident. He was readmitted and formed a residents council called "One Voice" to speak to administrators about residents' concerns.

Haqq found a job at McDonald's. He plans to return to community college, where he previously took some classes.

"I've gained a new view of the world," he said of his experience at Adolfo. "In foster care, I just survived. Here, I broke out of my shell."

He still faces many obstacles. Haqq recently exhausted his two years at Adolfo, and a week before leaving he wasn't sure where he was going to live before he found friends with an apartment.

He is looking for a second job so he can get his own apartment. He needs the space, because in September his girlfriend is due to give birth to their child.

Counties take control

While advocates say transitional housing programs are necessary to help foster children become self-sufficient, two significant state changes have threatened the programs' future.

In 2011, the state gave counties control of housing programs for former foster youth as Gov. Jerry Brown sought to give local governments more responsibility for corrections and social programs.

The state also extended the age limit for foster care beyond age 18, allowing people to receive services up to age 21. That came after the federal government offered more money to states for that purpose.

The changes have led several counties to question whether to continue transitional housing programs, said Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation, which advocates for homeless youth.

Lemley said transitional housing programs are still needed because not all foster children are eligible for extended foster care. She also said that some young people would do better in transitional housing programs, in particular those who struggled in foster care.

Sacramento County officials plan to continue Adolfo's $2 million annual appropriation for the coming fiscal year. It's not clear how much support the program will receive beyond 2013-14.

"We are already starting to see changes in the choices that the youths themselves are making, and going forward we will be assessing these changes to determine how to best use funding flexibility," said county spokeswoman Laura McCasland.

Getting the students out of destructive ways of thinking is one of the most important goals at Adolfo, said counselor Anthony Maiden.

"If you're in the survival mode of thinking, you're going to do whatever works to get what you need – such as act out to get attention," Maiden said.

Mucelroy said he was placed in foster care because his father was incarcerated and his mother abandoned him. He said it made sense for him to run away from foster homes and try to live with his grandmother, because she was the only family he had left.

"I was considered a bad kid because I didn't want to be in the system," he said.

Mucelroy failed to graduate from high school and had brushes with the law. But he said Maiden is working with him to turn things around, such as getting him to enroll in a high-school equivalency program.

Mucelroy said he wants to become a ranger at Yosemite National Park.

"I think that's possible," Maiden told him.

Participants in transitional housing programs statewide see their income increase, but still live below the poverty line and overall don't make improvements in education, according to a 2011 Burton Foundation study.

Still, the programs provide an important safety net for youths who would otherwise be homeless, the authors concluded.

On a recent morning, Sacramento City College employees brought some students to Adolfo to speak to the former foster children. The City College students wanted Adolfo students to know they can overcome the past, as the students had enrolled in college despite criminal backgrounds.

That's a message Adolfo student Isaac Brown would like to believe. When Brown got out of foster care, he repeatedly got into trouble with law enforcement and was jailed several times. (Adolfo only prohibits participants who have committed violent crimes.)

Brown said he was supposed to start at Adolfo shortly after leaving foster care but was too involved in street crime.

The birth of his son nine months ago convinced him to enter Adolfo, Brown said. He shares custody with the boy's mother and now has an apartment in which to take care of the child.

"I need to be here to begin to make a life for myself," Brown said. "I need him to have a father. I didn't have one."

Read more here: