Forgotten fosters: Tackling a crisis in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Three-year-old Tra’Shawn is Janeva Smith’s life. The toddler with an infectious smile is both her son and her rock. The two of them lived the unimaginable and were homeless together for the first months of his life.

“It’s hard, it’s very hard, one of the worst feelings in the world,” Smith says, recounting the nightmare they lived. “It’s waking up feeling like you have a cloud over your head, and it’s the hardest thing in the world because it’s not just yourself, it’s your child.”

Smith was in and out of foster homes from age 18-months to 18 years.  Like many of the 5,000 children and teens in Virginia’s foster system, she moved around so much that there was no chance to put down roots.

In Virginia, children are in the care of the foster system until age 18. Independent living programs that come with strict ground rules offer guidance for them for a few more years.

When Smith got pregnant at 19, she was officially out. She had no money, no job or roof over her head.

“For a long time, I was in my car, I was on the floor, I was on a couch but not a bed. And those are little things that people take for granted,” Janeva remembers. “I honestly feel like society looks at foster kids as if, ‘oh, poor you,’ but then once you’re 18, it’s pushed on you to, ‘well, now you’re 18, you gotta do what you have to do.’  But nobody’s taught me what to do, so how am I supposed to do it?”

According to Virginia Performs, the Commonwealth has one of the lowest numbers of kids in foster care but the highest percentage aging out. About five hundred a year are emancipated from the system.

Greta Harris, President and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition has taken notice of this crisis.

“Incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, pregnancy,” Harris lists just some of the issues plaguing these young adults.

It is why her agency just launched the Possibilities Project with the Children’s Home Society of Virginia. The program has been in the works for two years.

“Imagine being 18, 19, 20-years-old without the support of family, without the support of friends, without a safe place to live,” describes Nadine Marsh-Carter, the Children’s Home Society of Virginia’s President and CEO.

Marsh-Carter gave 8News Anchor Amy Lacey a tour of one of five furnished apartments their two groups set up in the Richmond area for kids who are not adopted.

The VCU Department of Interior Design decorated the spaces. Furniture and housewares donated by various supporters make the apartments feel like home.

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Counselors from the Possibilities Project will also offer the young people direction on everything from higher learning to how to find a job.

“This is just a building block for success for these young adults,” Harris gestures to the apartment.  “If you can have a safe place to lay your head at night, you have the opportunity to dream about what other things you want to do with your life.”

Smith understands how important it is to have that stability. She wants to open her own makeup salon one day, but it is cast aside for the time being so she can work and provide for Tra’Shawn.

The 23-year-old is hopeful the Possibilities Project offers kids aging out of the system a jump start so they do not have to catch up like she feels she is doing.

“The hand that I was dealt,” her voice trails off while she collects her thoughts. “Am I ever going to be able to reach these hopes and dreams?”

“We want to capture those young people and make sure they get the same supports that other young people have when they turn 18,” Marsh-Carter says about the foundation the Possibilities Project will help them develop.

Smith knows they definitely cannot do it alone.

“Everybody deserves to have a place to lay their head,” she says. “And if everybody could just close their eyes and imagine one day waking up and having nobody, nobody what would you do?”

The Possibilities Project is a pilot program in Richmond, but the goal is to expand it throughout Virginia and other states.

This year the Virginia General Assembly also passed Fostering Futures, which offers transitional services to foster kids until age 21.  It goes into effect July 1 but will take a few years to cover everyone who is aging out of the system.

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