Sofia Rudin: Mike Burk, you've been with Rhode Island's Department of Children, Youth and Families for two decades and working with youth in state care for longer than that. Now you run the Voluntary Extension of Care program for youth aging out of state care. What need is this program trying to meet?  

Mike Burk: So one of the things that the department really focuses on is trying to ensure that any child in our care, including older youth in our care, achieve permanency before they turn 18. At the same time, we know that many youth don't have that option when they hit 18, and they need some supportive services to continue as young adults. So that's the big role that we're playing with them and helping them still be able to have the services through us, but slowly move into and migrate into that adult world.

Sofia Rudin: Walk us through how this program works. What specific supports do VEC participants get?  

Mike Burk: So as they transition into our unit, they are assigned a caseworker from our unit who specifically works with older youth. At that first transition process, they're working with the current family service caseworker, the child welfare caseworker, or probation officer to help look at what the needs are, help that that young person identify what they want to do--in terms of school, work, et cetera--and then develop a plan that we present to the court. After they turn 18, they have to sign an agreement with us that they want to be involved in the VEC program. We also provide them with rental assistance, cash assistance. And that follows them throughout the time that they're with us until their 21st birthday, but it does decrease over time to help them be able to sustain that over time.  

Sofia Rudin: Safe and stable housing is such an important piece of that transition into adulthood. But in Rhode Island, generally, we have a major challenge around a shortage of affordable housing. I'm wondering how your staff works to make sure that youth in the program are able to find affordable housing. 

Mike Burk: So part of it is upfront, really figuring out what is affordable for that young person, both now and going forward. So we really work on having roommates. As well, we have 30 of the 78 youth who are currently approved into the VEC program who are living with relatives, or former foster parents, or some other type of relationship. For us, that's a much more stable environment for them at that point in time. It gives them more support, so we do encourage that. And we're working with a lot of landlords around the state. My staff have made excellent connections to individual landlords who have multiple housing sites, as well as to property managers who, you know, have one big property or multiple properties that they can manage. Our biggest challenge is probably emergency housing. So for that youth who disrupts from their apartment for whatever the case might be, maybe they just weren't doing what the landlord needed, they may have fallen in arrears with their rent, or there were domestic violence issues and they needed to move out, and we need to find a place right away. 

Sofia Rudin: Previously the state had run similar support services through contracts with an independent provider. Foster Forward’s YESS program is what I'm referring to. Why move this program into DCYF’s hands?

Mike Burk: Prior to 2007, we did not have an aftercare service program because youth could remain open to us until 21. In 2007, after the age was reduced to 18 for us, we developed and implemented the YESS Aftercare Services, which was part of a larger program that we contracted with an agency for. That served that purpose, but from the time that the age was changed, the advocates clearly didn't feel that was enough. One of the big differences between what was provided before under the YESS Aftercare Services and what is provided now is that there is that court supervision and that DCYF involvement, which allows us to access some additional services for them. But it also gives them an opportunity to have the court look at us and say, are you doing enough? Our youth group at the time, The Voice, very much was in favor of adding in that oversight of the court. At the same time, because we were able to match this with federal dollars now, which we weren't able to do before, we can provide them with greater amounts for rental assistance and that cash assistance. So under the old program, we provided only up to $600 a month. Under this program, we provide up to $1,000 dollars a month.  

Sofia Rudin: One of the critiques of this program as it was getting started is that there wasn't enough outreach and promotion. Now you have 78 youth involved. But I'm wondering how many youth are eligible for this program and what percentage of them are you reaching?  

Mike Burk: So it's really hard for me to define how many are eligible. I keep the statistics manually right now because our computer system doesn't have the robustness to do it. And we're working on that. There are probably, I'm gonna guess, 150 or so that might be eligible. Every opportunity I get, my staff get, we encourage providers and others to know more about the program, make sure they have the contact information for the program. So that's the outreach that we're doing right now. We really depend a lot on our network of providers and advocates to get that word out for us. 

Sofia Rudin: According to some of the quarterly reports from the YESS program, they had more than 200 youth enrolled in that program. And 200 is more than double what you're serving. What happened to that other hundred youth? Why the disparity? 

Mike Burk: So there are roughly 40 youth still being served by the YESS program. And as we moved into July of last year, we intentionally had youth go into the YESS program again because we knew that the whole process wasn't ready. So some of those youth who would have come into VEC went into that YESS program. At the same time, those numbers for YESS increased over time. So when YESS first started, their numbers were low as well. And this program is similar. Any program is going to start up more slowly than what it is as it reaches maturation. So I think we're moving ahead very well. We are at about 33, 34 in terms of the average caseload for the current workers. We have a new caseworker transferring into the unit, so that will help us build on that as well. And the department and others have recognized that as we grow, we need to add additional staff. So I think as we move forward, I certainly will be recommending, as those case numbers go back up, that we would look at adding more staff to be able to take care of that need.  

Sofia Rudin: Finally, I just want to zoom out on this problem. Whether youth are 21 or 18 when they age out, how much difference does three years make in terms of addressing the challenges these youth face?  

Mike Burk: So I guess the easiest way for me to relate to that is my own daughter. I can't imagine, even though she was very independent, her being completely on her own when she turned 18. You know, for example, when she and some friends decided they wanted to get outside of the dorms and live in a house together, myself, my wife and and some of the other parents reviewed the lease for them, helped them understand how to navigate that. So I think it's a critical time, as they become young adults, to help support them in as many ways as we can. While at the same time, letting them fail, knowing that there's somebody to be there to pick them back up. And it's important from my perspective that we're doing it in a way that is gradual, so that when they do hit 21, they're not facing a cliff.