Supporting foster youth in Arkansas: addressing challenges on the path to adulthood
May is National Foster Care Month and in Arkansas, the number of foster youths near adulthood has dropped slightly, according to a new report.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation report looked at the transition period for young adults in foster care and found the number of young Arkansans aged 14 and up in the system dropped from 28% in 2006 to 20% in 2021.
Eric Gilmore - executive director of Immerse Arkansas - said his organization is helping youth 14 to 24 escape crises, putting them on a path to healing, growth, and transformation.
"Finding a safe and stable place to live, getting a job, finishing their education, and building a community around them - whether that's family or mentors, but people that are going to do life with them," said Gilmore. "We come in at a really critical time a really hard time in life, and help young people put those pieces together to help make sure that they can be successful."
Gilmore said an Immerse transitional program called LifeBASE provides supportive, stable housing and individualized coaching to equip youth for transition into adulthood.
He added that the coach works with the young person for up to 24 months to hit goals and make progress in the areas of employment, education, well-being, and mental health.
The report shows 81% of 21-year old Arkansans received a high school diploma or General Education Degree in 2021, and Gilmore said the state will help young people who want to pursue higher education or vocational certification programs financially.
But he added that some young people face housing challenges, an unstable support network, or other barriers to achieving that goal.
"Most young people, they're thinking about college," said Gilmore. "But these young people have not been prepared educationally to get to that point, so rather than working on higher education. We're helping them get their high school diploma or their GED."
Gilmore emphasized that they are also working with youth who are ready for higher education. For example, he points out a young man who is in the process of transferring to the University of Central Arkansas to finish a degree in graphic design.
He added that another student who came through the Immerse program was recently accepted into the University of Arkansas Clinton School.
Annie E. Casey Foundation Senior Policy Associate Todd Lloyd said there are about half as many adolescents in foster care as there were 15 years ago, but he added that the reasons they are entering the system have changed.
"In the past, young people were coming in for foster care for reasons of behavior, adolescent behavior, child behavior problem," said Lloyd. "But now there's more of a shift towards them entering care for reasons of neglect, which are often connected to issues of poverty."
Lloyd said neglect is often related to economic insecurity and wants child welfare agencies to work with families to help them address issues of economic challenge and provide support.