On any given day in the United States, there are about 424,000 children living in the foster care system, as reported by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness on children living within these terms. The Arkansas Child Welfare Outcomes State Date Review reported 4,280 children in foster care as of Sept. 30, 2020.

 

Nationally, there is a looming threat to foster children: turning 18 years old, the national age of legal adulthood. Although 18-year-olds can vote, be tried in a court of law as an adult and serve in the military, there is a difference in legal adulthood and emotional maturity. The National Institute of Mental Health determined while the brain may have grown to its full size around age 11 for girls and age 14 for boys, the prefrontal cortex does not finish developing and maturing until a person’s  mid-to-late 20s. 

 

“This [prefrontal cortex] is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses. Because these skills are still developing, teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior without considering the potential results of their decisions,” reported “The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know,” a fact sheet published by NIMH. 

 

Legal definitions of adulthood and psychological definitions of adulthood, or emotional maturity, differ.  There are several implications to consider when defining what makes an individual ready to tackle the tasks that come with being “grown”. 

 

In Arkansas, turning 18 may make you a legal adult, but with an initiative put into place by the Department of Human Services in 2020, it does not have to be the date that foster children cease to receive resources. Transitional services available under the division of Services For Older Youth or Former Foster Youth create a way to guide teenagers in planning for their futures. 

 

According to DHS, this is referred to as a transitional planning process, where children are able to assess and develop the life skills and resources they need to function as an adult. The plan is put together by a team made up of people important to the child, such as foster parents, biological family members, an attorney, Court Appointed Special Advocates for children (CASA), mentors, therapists, teachers and coaches. 

 

According to Services For Older Youth or Former Foster Care, the plan covers a variety of topics such as education, employment, health care and housing, in addition to securing necessary records such as a birth certificate, medical records and school records. 

 

These plans can also include a secondary option for children, extended foster care, a program where older youth can opt to stay in Arkansas’ care from ages 18-21.

 

 The DHS website addresses concerns youth may have regarding staying in foster care, “Look, we get it. Foster care isn’t fun. You want freedom and your own space, but there are great opportunities to remain in foster care that give you more freedom than you think.” 

 

Arkansas codes § 9-27-303(32)(B) and § 9-28-114 allow children to choose to stay in foster care until they turn 21 years old if they are attending school, working or have a medical condition preventing education or occupation. Under extended foster care, youth are eligible to receive a maximum of $5,000 a year to support continued education via college and trade schools, and to find housing.  

 

When it comes to finding a place to live, it can be difficult for those exiting foster care to access safe and stable housing. Credit and work history play a significant role in many leasing opportunities, and both criteria can be profoundly affected by being in foster care. In 2020, DHS launched its Supervised Independent Living Program, allowing extended foster care participants to obtain support and independence. According to the Arkansas Department of Children and Family Services, this opportunity exists to support children over 18, giving them the best chance to make it on their own. 

 

There are many supervised independent living facilities for children in extended foster care in Arkansas, such as Immerse. Immerse is an organization committed to helping children transition into adulthood with several programs including LifeBASE, the organization’s transitional program. 

 

Eric Gilmore, executive director at Immerse, explains multiple ways the organization is involved in serving youth in Central Arkansas. 

 

“We have the youth center on Asher Avenue in Little Rock, where we serve a lot of young people who we may not be able to get into housing. We allow them to meet with a coach, determine core goals relating to housing and relationships and provide them with a place to eat and take a shower,” Gilmore said.

 

Known as The OC, the youth center is not part of the supervised independent living solution that Immerse offers, but is another resource for children who need support. Described as a hub for all of Immerse’s operations and programming, The OC is also a place where the youth can find coaching, mentoring, life skills classes, educational and employment support and participate in community activities. 

 

LifeBASE Young Adult provides help with supportive housing, one-on-one skills training, life skills training, recreational activities and a 24/7 crisis helpline in addition to services at The OC. LifeBASE Teen is a similar program, where youth ages 14 to 18 and their families can receive coaching, training, recreational activities and more. 

 

According to Gilmore, Immerse has space for 30 older youth in transitional housing as part of the LifeBASE program, and the DCFS funds 10 of the available spots. 

 

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“It’s a challenging time for many young people, and sometimes it seems like a really tough decision to make to stay in foster care,” Gilmore said. “With our teen program, we serve 14-year-olds to 18-year-olds who are still in foster care or have been adopted. We decided to take what we do with older youth to teach these things at a younger age, to prepare them at a younger age.” 

 

Immerse serves with its mission at mind, providing unconditional, supportive and nurturing relationships. Immerse’s six-step process includes an assessment of needs, creating a plan, building a circle of support, equipping youth with the tools they need, measuring the impact of the created plan and, finally, overcoming. 

 

“Immerse approaches the problem in terms of lifestyle instead of an age limit. There are sources of funding that are time-limited, but not age.” Gilmore said. “We really want to see young people in safe and stable housing and completing education and certifications.” 

 

“We’re not going to give up before you do,” is a phrase Gilmore and his team say often, assuring their commitment to service. 

 

“We know it’s a long journey and that it takes a lot of hard work, but we really work hard to stick with the young people in our program,” Gilmore said. “We are honored to do what we get to do, and we are thrilled to work with young people who are working so hard to accomplish their goals. We are constantly impressed with the resilience of the people we serve who haven’t given up despite everything that life has thrown at them.” 

 

In 2023, Immerse plans to start construction on a shelter for older youth ages 18 to 24. This shelter will provide stable, short-term housing with individual bathrooms and bedrooms. 

 

“The shelter will help get youth into stable housing quicker and will help them to avoid the challenges of adult homeless shelters,” Gilmore said. “We are excited about meeting that need.” 

 

According to Gilmore, Immerse plans to open this shelter in spring or summer 2024. 

 

Immerse has grown in its mission over the last several years, and according to Stefan Specht – a man who not only has experience in the foster care system but also with Immerse – the organization has set itself apart from the others by fostering an environment of trust. 

 

“Fundamentally, Immerse is a program that is built differently than a lot of others,” Specht said. “Immerse leads on a trust-based relationship intervention, which is life-changing for a lot of youth.” 

 

Specht, who entered the Arkansas foster care system in his adolescence, was first introduced to the program in August of 2014 after spending time in a Methodist group home. 

 

“I wanted to try to figure things out on my own, so I left Immerse for about a year and a half,” Specht said, explaining that his experience in independence was not successful. 

 

“I’ve spent a lot of my life institutionalized. I’ve lived in group homes and lived in rough positions at best,” Specht said. “There are lots of different programs and lots of different ways people run these programs, and Immerse really understood how to not only build trust, but how to keep it.” 

 

In returning to Immerse in 2017, Specht found the group to be genuine in its philosophy and eager to reconnect with him, no matter the length of  time he spent away. His then-transitional coach helped him get involved with Job Core, which allowed him to obtain a certificate in a trade. 

 

According to Specht, once you enter Immerse you never truly leave the program, and because of the respectful and understanding approach of Immerse employees, there is an overwhelming rate of success. 

 

Gilmore said a major difference in Immerse is that it is not an aged-based program as much as it is a readiness program. 

 

“We support the youth for however long it takes,” Gilmore said. 

 

Specht has been involved with Immerse for the past eight years, and in his involvement has been able to work directly representing youth. He received an associate degree from the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College and is currently studying graphic design at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

 

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