Working with Children Aging Out of Foster Care

Vol. 29 No. 1

By

Vicki Levy Eskin is the principal of Levy & Associates of Central Florida, P.A., in Longwood, Florida, and recently served as Chair of the National Solo & Small Firm Conference for the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.

 

Abused. Abandoned. Neglected. These are the qualifying adjectives identifying children in foster care. Some children came under governmental supervision owing to the death, illness, or incarceration of a primary caregiver. Perhaps the caregiver experienced mental health issues or had a substance abuse problem. Whatever the reason, adequate family or community support systems were not in place to fill in for the parent when a crisis arose. Thus, the child was placed in foster care. Absent exceptional circumstances, a child in the foster care system is considered to be an adult upon reaching the age of 18 and must enter the adult world with little or no economic, social, educational, or other critical support systems. The 18-year-old must find a home, a source of income, and become an adult—quickly.

Over the past 15 years, I have been contacted by judges, guardians ad litem, caseworkers, attorneys for parents, and others asking for help when they encounter a child aging out of foster care with a unique situation that they believe may be eased by my intervention. When I’m approached, I usually begin by asking a barrage of questions: Is the child developmentally, emotionally, or physically handicapped? If so, is there any appropriate individual who may be willing to serve as a guardian advocate or plenary guardian after the child turns 18? Is the child eligible to receive any governmental benefits owing to disability, and if so, have any efforts been made to qualify the child for these benefits? Are either or both of the child’s parents deceased or disabled? If so, is the child eligible to receive death or disability benefits owing to the parent’s circumstances? Is the child eligible to claim any injury that might provide a source of economic recovery? Were any governmental benefits held on behalf of the child while in foster care improperly returned to the Social Security Administration or other entity? (If funds in excess of $2,000 are recovered, a special need trust or some other sort of trust might extend the child’s eligibility for benefits or protect the child from exploitation or poor management.) Has anyone taken a special interest in the child along the way, and is this person willing to serve as a mentor for the child long after the court’s normal jurisdiction over the child has ended? Answers to these basic questions have led me to discover economic resources that might have otherwise been overlooked. Searching for sources of additional funds to help children aging out of the foster care system is immensely challenging and very satisfying when one finds a hidden resource that can help bridge the gap while the kid is growing more mature.

By combing through death records and property lists, I’ve located houses near condemnation or foreclosure and attended hearings to persuade governmental officials to grant time to rehabilitate dilapidated properties to benefit foster kids. I’ve argued with insurance companies and banks to release forgotten funds to help pay off mortgages to benefit the kids. I’ve pulled on plastic gloves and put on face masks to clean up places that not even vagrants would dare enter. I’ve gathered contributions and organized volunteers to increase marketability of houses that needed to be sold to fund trusts for kids. I’ve located unclaimed property and abandoned funds, personal property, and even vehicles to be sold to benefit the kids. I’ve recovered funds improperly diverted from children and set up guardianships of person or property, filed suits on behalf of children, defended against foreclosures for child beneficiaries, and set up special needs trusts for kids. I’ve looked over lease agreements for kids, helped them set up bank accounts, helped order birth or death certificates or Social Security cards to help kids provide proof for one agency or another. I’ve tried to teach kids to shop wisely, shown them how to use appliances and cook, explained the virtues of pest control and birth control, taken kids to doctor’s appointments, and even, one more than one occasion, shown up to either prevent or support eviction proceedings or pay an electric bill. I’ve helped kids shop for their baby’s diapers and baby bed long after even my own grandchildren needed such items. I’ve held newborn babies handed to me by “my” kids. I’ve helped complete job applications, served as a reference source, and written references for kids. I’ve helped pack and unpack apartments as kids move in and on.

Most of the legal work I’ve completed for the foster kids was pro bono, but sometimes, when I’ve made a significant financial recovery, my pro bono work can become low bono, or at least reimburse my costs. I’ve learned more by helping these kids than can be relayed in a short article for a magazine. Often what I’ve learned has led to more financially lucrative work for paying clients; occasionally, someone in the community who is intrigued by a creative method of locating assets to help a foster kid will send me a lucrative matter.

My family and staff groan loudly when I get yet another call from one of my kids or when I confess that I’ve agreed to help just one more kid, but before I react, each member has begun brainstorming ways to help. If you have any interest at all in dependency, probate, or education law, please consider offering your services to help a child aging out of the foster care system. You’ll experience myriad emotions, but nothing will ever be as rewarding as having “your” young adults throw their arms around you while announcing how much they love you and have learned from you. And nothing can compare to the feeling of helping a young adult overcome the label of abused, abandoned, or neglected.

 

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