On school days, Shania Connor sets her alarm clock to ring three times at 15-minute intervals. If she doesn't get herself out of bed, nobody will.
A senior at East Providence High School, she shares a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate and her roommate's five-month-old daughter. There is nobody to tell her when to wake up for school or when to do her homework or chores. That ended when she turned 18.
After a childhood spent in and out of residential treatment programs and group homes, Shania has "aged out" of the state's child welfare system. Now, she is trying to navigate the world as an adult - with a lot of help.
She is among 232 young adults, ages 18 to 21, who participate in the state-funded YESS program, which stands for Young Adults Establishing Self Sufficiency. As a participant in the YESS Aftercare Services Program, she gets $480 a month to cover basic living expenses -- rent, heat, utilities and a bus pass -- and a case manager to help her stay on track. In return, she has to pay her bills and stay in school or find a job.
But the program's operators say that young adults like Shania are now in jeopardy of losing its services if the General Assembly approves the budget submitted by Governor Chafee for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The spending plan would shrink the Aftercare program's $1.97-million operating budget by almost $375,000, or 19 percent, said Lisa Guillette, executive director of Rhode Island Foster Parents Association, which administers the program. If the reductions are approved, she said, 46 participants would have to be cut from the rolls and new applicants wait-listed.
In a $7.9-billion state budget, a $375,000 program may seem like small change. But for the young adults who depend on the program for basic living expenses and social support, the program's operators say, it can mean the difference between failure and success.
Shania had lived in a group home in East Providence for nearly three years before she turned 18. It was late December, in the middle of her senior year. She had applied to college for the fall and didn't want to sign a year's lease.
Shania had met Rodeline Saint Felix, who completed the YESS Aftercare program and now works as a counselor in a group home. The two worked together on The Voice, an independent youth leadership board that advises the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. They agreed to share an apartment.
The staff at the group home where Shania lived threw an early Christmas party. They loaded her up with the essentials of adult life - bed sheets, blankets, towels, clothes hangers, laundry basket - along with some new clothes and gift cards.
Three days before Christmas she moved out. She recalls feeling elated, but also scared. "In the group home, everybody's there for you," she said. "They set up all your appointments. They give you an allowance every week ... I was on edge, like now I don't have that structure; don't have people telling me what to do."
The YESS Aftercare program was launched in November 2007 after the General Assembly, in a cost-cutting move, lowered the age at which youths are discharged from state care from 21 to 18.
The program has a $1.97-million operating budget to serve 165 young adults who have aged out of the state child welfare system. But since 2010, the program has consistently exceeded its mandatory enrollment and now serves 232 young adults, or nearly 1�-times the number it is required to.
The governor's proposal to reduce the program's budget by $374,862 came from the DCYF, which has a contract with the Foster Parents Association to administer the program.
"This is a 19-percent reduction in their overall annual budget. That's not insignificant. I'm not going to minimize that,'' Kevin J. Aucoin, acting deputy director of the DCYF, said. "... But we don't think we've crippled this program."
The program, he said, has exceeded its mandate by serving children who are also aging out of the juvenile justice system. "The real focus," he said, "was to be on the child welfare population."
Guillette, of the Foster Parents Association, said their records show that only 5 of the program's 232 participants aged out of the state training school, though others may have come into the program after being released from the training school to a group home or other community placement if they had no home to return to.
She points to a study that found that more than one in five adults (22.2 percent) who aged out of foster care had at one time been homeless after they turned 18. The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study involved reviewing case records of 659 adults served by the Casey Family Programs or the state child welfare system in Oregon or Washington.
Narfretta Connor, 58, ran a foster home where Shania was placed at age 3. About a year later, she adopted her. But as Shania grew up, she says, their life together became increasingly turbulent. By age 12, she said, Shania was acting out, using drugs and hanging out with members of a street gang.
Shania wound up at Butler Hospital and, later, St. Mary's Home for Children and then a group home for adolescent girls in East Providence. It was at the group home where, with the help of some skilled staff and therapists, Shania began to put her life together. She enrolled at East Providence High School and developed her new passion: basketball.
When Shania turned 18 and moved out of the group home, Connor, who also has an 11-year-old adopted son and raised three biological children, said she was worried. If it weren't for the YESS Aftercare program, she said, Shania wouldn't have had a chance.
"Even if she was working, let's be realistic ... it would not be enough to pay the rent," Connor said. "She would end up on the street ... [The program] is affording her an opportunity to be successful in life."
Shania agrees. If she hadn't had the support of the program, she said, "I don't think I'd be able to finish high school, honestly."
One morning last week, Connor climbed the stairs of an aging triple-decker in Providence and unlocked the front door. "Hello!" A strong, lemony odor wafted from the hallway followed by the sweet aroma of fried food. Shania dropped her Nike bag on the faux-leather couch in the converted living room that doubles as her bedroom and headed for the kitchen.
Her roommate, Rodeline Saint Felix, who is working a night shift as a counselor at a group home, stands in a cloud of steam, frying chicken and plantains. Her five-month-old daughter, Alana, naps in the bedroom down the hall. "What's up?" Shania said. "Just cookin'," Rodeline replied. "Want some fried chicken?"
The Rhode Island Foster Parents Association truly appreciates your dedication to the cause of all children and youth in DCYF care, including youth ages 18 to 21, like Shania, who are transitioning out of care.
We need your voices to help us continue to provide YESS services for all eligible youth. Please save the date to join us for the General Assembly hearing on March 20th regarding the proposed cut to the YESS program.
If you are directly impacted by this program or know someone who is, please contact Nicole Kenny at (401) 438-3900 x122 or firstname.lastname@example.org, for information about testifying.
Thank you in advance for your support and advocacy for our state's most vulnerable children and youth in transition.
Rhode Island Foster Parents Association