Jasmine Howard graduated from the state’s foster care system within weeks of her toddler daughter entering it, a fact that keeps the 18-year-old up at night but will not keep her down.
The Highland Springs High School senior is a mother twice over, but, she said, a judge decided she needs to finish raising herself before the state will entrust her with Aaliyah, now 2.
“She was just looking at me, and I told her that she had to go away for a while,” Howard recalled telling her daughter that January day she had to let her go. “It’s been hard.”
All of it has been hard: entering the system, living in it and leaving it. And the prospects are grim for the more than 22,000 young people across the country who exit state foster care systems annually in Howard’s shoes: without a legal connection to a permanent family.
Within two years, about 1 in 4 wind up incarcerated, 2 in 5 drop out of high school, and 1 in 5 become homeless, according to research from the national nonprofit Child Trends.
But last month, Howard took a step toward stability as the first tenant of housing at the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls that is tailored to the needs of young people aging out of the system without permanency. That happens in Virginia for nearly 1 in 5 foster youths — a rate nearly twice the national average.
Howard hopes the program — which features access to trauma-informed services already available at the Henrico County-based nonprofit’s tree-lined campus — will help her to be the mother her daughters need. Her oldest, now 3, lives with a grandparent.
Howard tries not to think about what she’s missing. She’s too busy working to get Aaliyah back, and rebuilding life “piece by piece” after a tumultuous few years that could have seen her fall through the cracks of a system critics say hasn’t done enough to ensure its graduates succeed.
Until then, “You just walk every day by faith and always keep your head up,” she said.
About 560 youths aged out of the state’s foster care system without a finding a connection to a permanent family during the 2017 state fiscal year, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
The director of the agency’s division of family services said that number should decrease under a proposal approved by state lawmakers this year that would create a path to permanency for some foster youths living with family members.
Virginia ranked 47 out of 50 states for the measure in a 2017 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation based on 2015 data.
Carl Ayers, director of the division of family services for the state agency, said Virginia fares poorly in the rankings in part because it has the lowest rate in the country of children being removed from their homes.
About 70 to 80 young people who turn 18 each year while living with family don’t qualify as having achieved a permanent family connection because they chose not to terminate their parents’ rights, Ayers said.
“Still, we definitely have work to do,” Ayers said.
Howard does, too. She takes two buses beginning at 7 a.m. to get to Highland Springs. She takes parenting classes, she saves money and she holds onto hope that a court will send Aaliyah home.
It’s a reversal from a path that seemed uncertain two years earlier, when Howard entered foster care after a rash of truancy she said was prompted by bullying at her old school.
“It’s been hard; I had to leave my mother and dad. It’s been really challenging,” she said.
She didn’t leave her new room for days after being placed with a foster family, but on the fourth day a woman she calls her godmom came upstairs and told her to open the blinds.
“She said, ‘You need to let in some light,’” Howard said. “So I did.”
When she needs light now, Howard sings “A Mother’s Prayer” and dreams of filling the closets of her new space at the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls with her youngest daughter’s things.
The apartments, furnished by volunteers and donations from Haynes and Target, are flanked by standalone houses and a chapel on the 30-plus-acre campus of the nonprofit off West Broad Street, which was been serving children in crisis since 1846.
Officials celebrated the repurposing of town homes that once housed staff members with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Tuesday to mark the addition of independent living services to a portfolio that includes specialized schooling and residential treatment for youths ages 11 to 17.
“Really you can look at this in a broad way as 13 to 14 years of effort across party lines coming to fruition,” Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, said after helping to cut a purple swath of fabric strung across the front porch of a tan and brick town house.
Peace in 2016 helped shepherd legislative approval of the Fostering Futures program, which covers the $644 in monthly rent Howard needs for her apartment.
He traced the roots of that approval to an overhaul of children’s services in Virginia championed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton, more than a decade ago. Holton, a former juvenile court judge, advocated for reforms that would see fewer children enter the foster care system.
There were 328 youths enrolled in the Fostering Futures program, a federally funded initiative administered by local social service agencies, as of Dec. 1, 2017, according to Ayers.
They receive a $700 monthly allowance for housing and associated living expenses, Ayers said. He said the department did not track how many independent living programs were open across the state.
Howard could use that money toward any apartment, but she chose the independent living program in hopes it would help her bring Aaliyah home.
“I see this as part of my fight for her,” she said in a recent interview after school and before her shift working the register at Buz and Ned’s Real BBQ on West Broad Street.
The nonprofit is set up to accommodate up to 12 program participants and will tailor services to individuals’ needs, said Karen Swansey, who oversees the housing.
Some youths may check in once a week, while others may make contact and receive wrap-around supports five or six days a week, Swansey said.
The point is to promote independence while maintaining a safety net not unlike what parents typically provide to their children: help navigating school, work, and managing the inevitable hurdles that arise on the path to adulthood.
“The spirit of this program is to empower them — we won’t be doing them a favor if we hover too much, we are just here to get them started,” said Joan Marable, the nonprofit’s director of marketing and communications.
Howard documented her arrival last month with a room-by-room tour uploaded to a YouTube channel that otherwise hosts videos of her singing, mostly about how she misses Aaliyah and the daughter she had at 15.
Howard swings between excitement at the bare closets she plans to fill and emotions she can’t quite express as she takes viewers through every room in the building.
“It’s going to be hard, you know, going through struggles in daily life,” she says after a tour of the kitchen.
There’s the microwave her father gave her, stir fry on the stove, and — a splurge — two pieces of fish sizzling in the oven that cost $5.
“I’m just happy God made a way for me to do this for myself,” Howard says, before ultimately signing off with an “I love y’all” and a wave.