On Special Assignment: Aging out of Montana's foster care system - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

On Special Assignment: Aging out of Montana's foster care system

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BILLINGS -- At the age of 21, Jasmine McRae is raising her son, King, alone.

She's thankful to have an apartment in Billings, where she's spent several nights on the streets in the not-so-distant past.

“My life today is basically just taking care of (my son) and raising him to have a good life that I never had,” said McRae. “My mom, she had a drinking issue. She just snapped one night and cut off all my hair with a butcher knife. My brother ran in the snow in just his pajamas to get help."

Today, McRae still has the scar on the back of her head to remind her of that awful night. It was the breaking point, the moment McRae and her eight siblings were removed. 

Like nearly 4,000 other children in Montana this year, McRae was thrust into the foster care system. She was just 13.

McRae lived with five different families over the next five years, "I’ve been to Laurel, Senior, Skyview and West."

Before she graduated from any of those schools, McRae emancipated herself and dropped out.

Nearly 300 miles away in Glasgow, Jymie Walker was removed from her home after Child Protective Services learned her mother was an alcoholic and her boyfriend was a registered sex offender.

“She would blame me for her financial problems because they took my part of the Social Security away,” said Walker.

Walker’s father died when she was a baby, so she was placed with a foster family in Livingston, where she lived through four years of high school.

Unlike McRae, Walker was not forced to move but she was never adopted either.

This year, as Walker weighed whether to go off to college or return to her mother, the decision was made for her. “Out of the blue she just passes away and I’m left alone up here with no one."

To cope, Walker is focusing on her classes at Montana State University in Bozeman, where she earned two scholarships. “I want to succeed, I want to do good so my life doesn’t suck anymore."

Walker and McRae entered the same system and left on two different paths.

According to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, 65 foster kids aged out just last year. Many are now in jail, on government assistance and even homeless.

Suzanne Braun with Child and Family Services said a lack of foster parents and high caseloads for social workers keeps kids in limbo. "Best practice would be in the lower 20s, so our caseworkers are carrying double that."

To help bridge the gap, organizations like the Montana Chafee Foster Care Independence Program offer career guidance and life skills.

“Early on, I really pushed education and learned really quickly that these kids don’t grow up in homes where they’re required to go to school and that’s not important," said Chafee Director Stephanie Marquis. "So I had to learn early on that they didn’t want to continue on in education and that’s not a failure. There are lots of ways to go out in the world and be successful.”

Marquis said employment, housing and parenting are all forms of success. She’s mentored hundreds of kids in the Yellowstone County program and only two have graduated college.

"Their mental health gets in the way of all of this," said Marquis. "They have a lot of grief and trauma that normal kids just don’t have to go through.“

Rebecka Perfitt, a crisis counselor at the Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Billings, answers calls from teens in their darkest hour.

She said many of the calls she takes are from kids asking for a place to stay for the night, "a lot of homeless teens just need a warm place to stay,” said Perfitt.

Perfitt brings personal experience to the conversation. She was in foster care and shuffled through five different homes in just over a year.  “It’s just feeling alone and not belonging to any family. No one’s going to understand you, no one’s going to stick with you."

Perfitt did not age out, she was returned to her mother. Braun said that’s the goal: reunification. But for many kids, home is too dangerous.

“Entering the foster care system should be an experience for them that reaches out and embraces them and give them the services they need, but it can also come with a different set of trauma as well,” said Child and Protective Services Specialist Kayliegh Wichman.

As foster children navigate adulthood, it’s not without the trauma they experienced as children.

Walker and McRae say they want a system of care redesigned with kids in mind, one that offers choices and gives foster children a voice.

Ways to help:

Become a foster parent Anyone who is at least 18 years of age and in good physical and mental health may apply to become a foster parent.

Donate to Tumbleweed Tumbleweed provides safety, assistance and hope to our community's vulnerable and homeless youth, creating lasting life changes.

Join the Guide Home Program The Guide Home Program of Youth Homes supports youth at home or places them in individual placements, one-on-one with an individual or family.

Become a mentor Spend one-on-one time with a teen, offer homework help, career advice, etc.

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