There are roughly 15,000 children and young adults in foster care in Illinois, and when they turn 21, they’re no longer eligible for state services and resources.
These young people often have a higher likelihood of falling into unfortunate circumstances when they are forced to leave the system, like homelessness and unemployment, advocates say. To fill that gap, local nonprofit Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative provides mentorship and development opportunities for people in foster care.
CYOI co-founders Brittiney Jones and Alayna Washington explain how the foster care system works in Illinois and how their initiative aims to help those in need.
How foster care works
Brittiney Jones: "We are using the word 'youth in care' now to talk a little bit more about the foster community. And essentially there are two areas for foster care. There’s foster care that live in a residential home and then we also have wards of the state, which are youth that can be emancipated. But that’s basically the foster youth community and ages range anywhere from infancy up until about 21 years old here in the state of Illinois. At 21 years old is the age for aging out of the foster care community."
'Foster youth' vs. 'Youth In care'
Alayna Washington: "People were just trying to find a different way to talk about youth that have dealt with these circumstances to take away the negative connotation of being a ward of the state. 'Ward' is also used for people who are incarcerated as well. Sometimes we have that language so I think transitioning it for something that is more inclusive but also can get rid of that negative connotation that may be associated with foster care youth."
Inspiration behind Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative
Jones: "So at 15 years old my parents essentially lost the rights of parental guidance for me. DHS (Department of Human Services) sat me down and said, 'Hey you can either go into a residential foster home or we can go the emancipation route.' And I chose emancipation. So essentially you are a legal adult, you are 18 and you can sign documents on your own. You are paying bills. I was 15 years old but legally you are an adult. You are getting stipends from the state so that was helpful but it can be a little difficult because you are doing it on your own. I had my own apartment at 15 years old. I had no idea how to pay bills but I was paying them. I lacked a lot of the guidance to have an idea of 'What is a GPA?' 'How do you take the ACT?' 'How do you get exposure to universities?' Another big thing is just having confidence. No one was there to help me. I had to do it on my own."
Washington: "I knew Brittiney when she was going through that rough time in high school and addition to that being a teacher in Chicago Public Schools. My first couple years I had several students who reached out to me from a mentoring perspective. They said they didn’t have a stable living environment at home, sleeping on friend’s couches and sleeping on the train. I was very startled and troubled as a teacher. So I did the best I could to research services to youth in this condition in the city of Chicago. And I realized it was very slim. So Brittiney and I talked and we said why don’t we create our own organization that is going to address these youths the way we think we need to address based on her experience and my knowledge as an educator."
What needs are you hearing from youth?
Jones: "It’s a variety of things and one of them is mentorship. And really having someone who can guide them that is a professional in their career interest outside of what they are being taught in the schools. Of course we have our doctors and our lawyers which is great but they are other things that people are interested in. With creative arts we have people who come in who are architects. We look to get mentors who are able to really showcase that aspect. Another thing we are hearing right now is wanting to get more exposure to downtown Chicago. You will be amazed at how a lot of these kids have never left their block. They’ve never been to the beach, they’ve never been to the museums so we focus a lot on community engagement within our organization for them to gain more exposure."
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.
GUESTS: Brittiney Jones, co-founder and executive director of Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative
Alayna Washington, co-founder and director of Youth Development at Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative
LEARN MORE: Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative Website