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Jennifer Falk, press spokesperson for ACS, says many positive changes have occurred under Scoppetta's command. "We're very concerned that children aging out of the foster care system leave the system with the support to function on their own. We've made Independent Living (IL) programs a priority here," says Falk. The Independent Living programs Falk mentions are offered to kids in foster care when they reach 14. She says the IL staff has doubled to 40 in three years. They offer college counseling, mentoring, and SAT prep courses as well as increased training to 68 foster care contract agencies throughout the city. Falk says the workshops and instruction sessions teach the foster care agencies how to properly discharge the youth and how to inform them of housing subsidies.
But how effective are these programs when only 16 hours of IL classes per year are required? Falk says, "The 16 hours are the bare minimum. All this stuff-classes teaching kids how to balance a checkbook, to manage their finances, and to live on their own-goes above and beyond those requirements."
Although improvements have resulted from increasing the number of IL programs, advocates and former foster care kids argue that there are still serious problems with transitional services at ACS. Hank Orenstein, director of Child Planning and Advocacy Now (C-PLAN), an agency within the Public Advocate's office, says, "We've definitely had complaints about IL programs and the lack of planning." Since C-PLAN's start in 1996, they've received more than 200 complaints against ACS. While most of those criticisms stem from parents fighting ACS's decision to remove their children from their home, many charges come from kids like Tanisha who believe they were discharged without follow-up services.
Tanisha is currently waiting to have her case heard by the State Supreme Court. Since she is 21 years old, she has no chance of returning to foster care. But her lawyer, Michael Williams of the Door, argues he "wants to get her as close as she could be if she hadn't been discharged improperly from foster care."
As for Tanisha Richardson's alleged improper discharge, Falk responds, "A child can only stay in foster care after the age of 18 if they are enrolled in school or if they just cannot live on their own. We're talking about someone who is a graduate of NYU who studies abroad. This is not a destitute child."
"We have a legal and moral responsibility for these kids," says Falk. "But we also have a legal and moral responsibility to best spend the taxpayers' money where it best serves the kids who need it." Even though the NYC Family Court ruled last June-after a seven-month delay-that Tanisha is not eligible for the housing subsidy, she's confident she can win at the State Supreme Court. "I've had problems with ACS for years. Most kids take their lumps and walk away. ACS thinks they can do this because so many kids won't challenge it, but I'm challenging it."