When youth age out of the foster care system at age 18, they often struggle with navigating through the complicated world of adulthood without a network of support.

Local organizations providing supportive services to foster care youth are meeting at St. Phillips College on Wednesday to build a one-stop shop to provide San Antonio foster youth and alumni with resources to develop life skills, pursue higher education, and become productive members of their community once they age out of the foster care system.

The Summit: Creating Vision and Victory for Life After Foster Care, is spearheaded by Bexar County District Court Judge Renée Yanta, who founded the PEARLS Court for teenage girls in foster care, which is a twice-monthly program providing group therapy, life skills classes, and mentors for up to 35 girls in state care.

“We took on the responsibility of being a parent to these kids when we terminated their parents’ rights because they weren’t safe, and that means we have a responsibility toward them,” Yanta said. “If we can create a coordinated vision among all of us, it would enable this population of young people to be more victorious in their lives.”

In July, Bexar County housed 1,951 of the state’s 16,995 foster care youth in private foster homes, group homes, emergency shelters, and residential treatment centers, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

When children are in foster care, they are paired with a case manager who helps connect them to services. But most of those services disappear when youth age out of foster care, and many are left trying to manage their needs on their own. Although there are services for those who turn 18 and are no longer under state care, including free college tuition, housing, and mentor programs, accessing those services can become difficult without a safety net of support, Yanta said.

“I had really good kids, but when my daughter was 18 she could not have managed it all on her own, and I still helped a lot with enabling her to make good decisions,” Yanta said.

Aariana Spencer was put into foster care in 2008 when she and her siblings were removed from their home following allegations of abuse by step-grandparents. Spencer struggled during her time in foster care. The family she was placed with eventually chose to adopt her sister and not her, and she was placed back into the system.

“As a child, I felt misunderstood and I created a lot of problems for myself because [of how I behaved],” said Spencer, who will be attending the summit on Wednesday to speak to the importance of coordinated care for foster youth past age 18.

After graduating high school, Spencer got her own apartment and started building a new life, but hit a snag at age 18 when legal trouble caused a rift in her long-term plans, and she found herself reaching out for support.

“I made the best of my situation and what was handed to me, and I always stayed positive,” she said, noting that she began looking at programs to aid with housing and educational assistance. This fall, she’ll begin studying business management at St. Phillip’s College.

Spencer told the Rivard Report that helping people access the resources available is key.

“They need to know that there is more to their life than the situation they are in,” she said. “And they might need help getting there.”

The summit will include conversations about barriers to transportation, housing, and economic stability for foster care alumni, with representatives from VIA Metropolitan Transit, the THRU Project, which provides mentors to foster care youth, and Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, which provides housing and educational services.

More than 135 people have registered to attend the summit.

At the end of the summit, Yanta will create an online referral source for youth to easily find help with obtaining a driver’s license, finding housing, and accessing mental health services.

The long-term goal of the annual summit is to create a community center for foster care youth and alumni to hang out, have access to mentors and resources, and feel a sense of belonging.

“We want to provide them more resources, and also give them ownership over a space where they can be positive, make connections, and create a safe space where they feel comfortable to learn and grow,” Yanta said.

Spencer, now 21, said that while her experience in foster care was difficult, she benefitted from it because it connected her to a system of help that she would not have otherwise had.

“Foster care made me, it didn’t break me. If I had [stayed] with my family, I would have been in trouble or in a bad situation a long time ago,” Spencer said. “Being in the system is not a bad thing because there are kids that need an escape, someone else to take care of them, someone else to show them love.”

The summit is open to the community and will take place at the Sutton Learning Center at St. Phillip’s College on Wed. Aug. 15, from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. For more information and to register to attend, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.