The University of Arizona

UA Project Paints Picture of Life for Youth in Foster Care with Disabilities

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | November 27, 2012

The yearlong Picture of a Life project focuses on providing person-centered life planning to prepare foster children with developmental disabilities for the transition into adulthood.

Children in foster care may face a number of challenges as they transition into adulthood and leave behind the structure and support of an organized foster care system. Landing a job, finding a place to live or pursuing higher education can be difficult for those exiting the system without solid family support to fall back on.

The transition from foster care to adulthood can be even more complicated for those with developmental disabilities. A new project at the University of Arizona is focused on helping those individuals better prepare for life outside the system.

The UA’s Sonoran University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service – or Sonoran UCEDD – is embarking on a one-year project that will provide a group of Arizona foster youth with developmental disabilities with planning assistance for adulthood. The center is working in partnership with the Arizona Department of Economic Security’s Division of Developmental Disabilities and the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.

In Arizona, 405 children in the custody of Child Protective Services also are eligible for services from the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities.

“This population is really at risk for getting lost,” said Jacy Farkas, director of the UA project, titled “Creating a ‘Picture of a Life’ for Transitioning Youth with DD in Foster Care.”

“It can be difficult enough trying to figure things out if you are a young person with a disability, but on top of that if you don’t have any family – you may or may not have foster parents – it can be really tough,” said Farkas, who works as Sonoran UCEDD’s outreach information and data coordinator, as well as coordinator of the center’s Person-Centered Initiative

The Picture of a Life project will pair trained facilitators with 20 Arizonans between the ages of 16 and 18 who have developmental disabilities and are in foster care.

The facilitators will engage the youth in what is known as person-centered planning, a life planning technique that focuses positively on an individual’s interests, goals, hopes and vision for the future rather than on any perceived deficits or weaknesses, Farkas said.

The plans will address key aspects of life after a child “ages out” of foster care at 18, like where he or she will live and work and what kind of special support he or she might need. The goal is to create a realistic “picture” of the kind of adult life the child envisions and how he or she can work toward achieving it. The plan is meant to be flexible and revisited as a child grows and changes, Farkas said.

Key figures in the child’s life – such as teachers, case workers or foster family members – will be included in crafting the written life plans.

“Person-centered planning process emphasizes communication among the individual with a disability and those who support them,” said Lynne Tomasa, principal investigator of the Picture of a Life project and clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine in the UA College of Medicine.

“The circle of support is committed to understanding, respecting and valuing the wishes and needs identified by the individual with a disability and those who are close to them,” she said. “It also highlights the importance of establishing networks of supports that we may not automatically think of. This is an integral part of future planning as the individual ages.”

Nationally, about 500,000 youth are in foster care, and between 20 and 60 percent of them have developmental disabilities or delays, compared to about 10 percent of the general population. These youth are at a disadvantage when moving forward into adulthood, Farkas said.

“Outcomes for most youth with developmental disabilities in foster care regarding educational attainment, economic sufficiency and health are overwhelmingly negative,” she said.

Statistics show that about 22 percent of former foster youth experience homelessness, 33 percent have no health insurance and 50 percent of women will have been pregnant by age 19, Farkas said. Only 43 percent are employed; of those, 47 percent earn wages below the poverty line.

Farkas hopes the Picture of a Life project will serve as a model for the state of Arizona for how to better prepare foster children with developmental disabilities for a successful adult life. She also hopes it will help coordinate efforts of those already involved in preparing the child for the transition.

“The goal is to establish more collaboration among all these different systems – whether it’s school or state services – so that it’s more integrated and everyone can be on the same page to help the individual,” Farkas said. “There really hasn’t been this type of planning systematically available for this specific population. There are several different service and support plans an individual may have, and a person-centered plan can inform all of them, as it pulls everything together in one place while really focusing on what’s going to happen to these children after they age out.”

“We want to provide as much of a full picture as possible for the individual of where they are now, where they want to go and what steps they can take to get there.”