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A playground at Tennyson Center for Children, which provides services for foster children in northwest Denver. Tennyson closed its residential program in 2021. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Viviana Cervantes was released from foster care directly from a residential treatment center. Within a few months, she found herself in her college dorm room “with a bagful of psychiatric medication” she didn’t know how to manage.

She had a $500-per-month stipend to help start life on her own, but little financial sense to use it wisely.

“The money was blown on things I can’t even tell you,” Cervantes, now 26, said, describing how her life began to spiral. “My education was no longer my priority. Surviving was.” 

The support system Cervantes had as a foster youth was gone, and there was no going back. But the rules could change for current foster youth in Colorado under a plan to allow them to reenter the system up until age 21. 

Colorado foster teens can emancipate from the system at 18, and in some cases, 17, but can choose to remain as wards of the state until 21. They rarely do — only a few teens each year decide to stay even one day longer than required. Most can’t wait to break free. 

But what they can face after leaving the system is rough, according to state and national data. Only about one-fourth graduate from high school on time. About one-third are homeless within three years. About one-third have kids of their own, many of them as single parents. 

Now, under a proposal pushed by the state child welfare division and awaiting the approval of state lawmakers, foster teens could change their minds and reenter the system months or even years after living on their own.

“My 20-year-old son is able to come back home literally and figuratively when he needs to, and young people who have left our system deserve the same safety and support from us,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families.

In the past five years, 1,048 kids have emancipated from the foster care system in Colorado. That means they did not return to their biological families and they were not adopted, but went straight from a foster family, group home or residential treatment center to living on their own, most often on their 18th birthday. Last year, 173 teens emancipated from the system. About 60 others were released to the youth corrections division, and another 60 ran away, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

Minna Castillo Cohen has led the state Office of Children, Youth and Families since November 2017. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A new federal mandate, temporary in the coronavirus era, allows kids to return to the foster system, making it clear they are “ours to care for even if they have left and come back,” Castillo Cohen said. Since the federal provision opened in December, three former foster kids in Colorado have come back to the system, she said. 

One of those young people was facing eviction, living off Ramen noodles and developing medical problems due to lack of nutrition, Castillo Cohen said. 

The federal rule change allowing foster youth to reenter expires in September, but Colorado child advocates want to make it permanent here. Several other states already have such a law. Child welfare officials said they will try to get the word out through nonprofits that work with homeless youth, including Urban Peak. 

State child welfare officials expect an estimated 58 youth per year would reenter the foster system. Costs for the expansion are pegged at $888,000 the first year, rising to $2 million by 2024, according to a fiscal analysis by legislative staff. Funds would go to child welfare divisions to support foster youth returning to the system. 

Besides allowing youth to reenter the system, the legislation — House Bill 1094 — also would create a grant fund to allow counties to set up “transition-to-adulthood” programs for foster youth. About half of Colorado counties already have Chafee programs, which match kids who are close to emancipating from foster care with case managers. Those adults help with everything from finding housing and jobs, to buying pots and pans.

The Chafee program exists in 34 counties, meaning swaths of rural Colorado have no such resources for teens leaving the system to live on their own. The legislation would help those counties create similar programs to help former foster youth until they turn 23. 

Older foster youth could live independently

Teens who leave foster care and then decide to return would not have to live with a foster family or once again have a guardian ad litem whose job is to represent their best interests in court. Instead, they could rent an apartment or a bedroom with financial assistance and supervision. They would receive an attorney to represent their wishes in court. And when they are ready to leave, a court would review their emancipation plan in an effort to reduce future homelessness or financial stress. 

Powers Circle Apartments in Littleton, owned by South Metro Housing Options, is among the apartment buildings that will accept housing vouchers from former foster youth. (Provided by South Metro Housing Options)

Returning to foster care would also mean access to Medicaid, which covers medical, mental health and substance abuse services. 

The proposal has been in the works for years, coming from a group of advocates who were “raising our hands and saying, ‘This is not working,’” said Betsy Fordyce, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, which provides guidance for a group of current and former foster youth called Project Foster Power. The center often assists in landlord disputes, helping young people apply for IDs, and other life issues that, under other circumstances, would fall to parents. 

Alexander Miller, who is 21 and left foster care at age 19, testified at the Capitol earlier this month, telling lawmakers that many of his friends from foster care ended up homeless. 

“This bill would open up the doors for people like me and my friends to be able to ask for the help we need and deserve,” Miller said. “Other young people have their parents to lean on during hard moments.”

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...