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18 can mean an abrupt exit from foster care. For some, it's no longer a solo journey

Taryn LaMaison, 46, has worked with Brandon LaMaison, 21, for three years through the LifeSet program that helps young people transition out of foster care enter and enter into adulthood.
Debbie Elliott
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Debbie Elliott
Taryn LaMaison, 46, has worked with Brandon LaMaison, 21, for three years through the LifeSet program that helps young people transition out of foster care enter and enter into adulthood.

Updated March 30, 2022 at 6:04 AM ET

Social worker Taryn LaMaison can sound tough when she's talking with her clients. She sometimes has to be. Her job, in short, is to help young people who are transitioning out of foster care learn how to adult.

Her no-nonsense approach comes through on a recent phone call with a young man she's been mentoring who lives in a New Orleans homeless shelter. He has a new job and wants her to bring him some gear.

"I'm going to go get your glasses and mask? Why would I go get them for you, mister? You are the adult," she tells him.

LaMaison is a state worker in Louisiana who provides hands-on guidance for 18- to 21-year-olds who are no longer in traditional foster care because they have officially aged out of the system. She's what's known as a LifeSet specialist — a counselor who helps these young adults with everything from where to live to how to find a job.

The goal is to guide them through a critical moment of transition where success is far from a guarantee. Every year, roughly 20,000 young people turn 18 in foster care and venture out on their own. States have a hodgepodge of programs aimed at helping them find independence, but for many of them, the start of adulthood is followed by more struggle. Research has shown that many of these young adults are more likely to experience homelessness and less likely to complete their education or earn a living wage.

In recent years, states like Louisiana have started to rethink what the transition out of foster care should look like. Louisiana is now one of nearly 20 states that have partnered with the nonprofit Youth Villages to provide intensive, one-on-one support to young people aging out of the foster system through the LifeSet model and counselors like LaMaison.

Lifting people out from "rock bottom"

LaMaison is a spitfire. Her bangs are dyed blue and there's a dusting of glitter around her eyes.

One of her clients is Brandon Waldrop, a lanky 21-year-old with a scruffy beard who works in the kitchen at a Creole restaurant in New Orleans.

"Hey, sweetheart, you want to clock out?" she says to Waldrop on a recent visit to the restaurant. The two have an easy rapport as she asks him to show off his motorcycle.

"Why is she important to you?" she asks him.

Waldrop says it's his first vehicle — something he's been working toward.

Finding reliable transportation is just one of the things LaMaison has helped Waldrop figure out. He's from Ponchatoula, La. His parents were drug addicts, and he bounced in and out of foster homes for most of his childhood. By his late teens, Waldrop was running away from group homes and trying to make it on his own. He lived on the streets or in abandoned trailers, and he was stealing.

I went from being on the streets to having my own crib and my own bike and having a job now ... This is not something I saw in my future.

"I came from rock bottom," says Waldrop. "No home, no family, no food, nothing. [I was] cold at night, sleeping outside, sometimes on the sidewalk. ... It was brutal."

Up until 2019, foster children in Louisiana were on their own when they turned 18. But a new law extended state care through age 21 for young adults who meet certain criteria — like having a job or going to school. It's voluntary, and Waldrop has been in and out of it for the past three years.

For this last year, he's been working under LaMaison's guidance. Waldrop says she set him up with work programs, helped him clear up his court cases and taught him how to save money.

"Basically just getting me prepared, telling me things I should have known, but I didn't do," says Waldrop.

"I'm proud of you," LaMaison tells him. "I really am."

Waldrop says he's shocked at how far he's come.

"I went from being on the streets to having my own crib and my own bike and having a job now," he says. "This is not something I saw in my future."

The program looks to challenge old frameworks

Helping young people see that they can have a stable future is the goal of LifeSet specialists like LaMaison. The LifeSet program was developed in 1999 by the Memphis nonprofit Youth Villages. Today, it is being used in 18 states and Washington, D.C.

"We believe that young people do well if they can," says Timothy Ashmore, regional director at Youth Villages. He says LifeSet is designed to serve as a bridge from the foster system into adulthood.

"You can imagine that these young people are ready to go," Ashmore says. "So, we really focus on that engagement piece when it comes to training, understanding where those young people are and meeting them there."

Caseworkers can tap clinical specialists and an online database for worksheets and activities that target the individualized needs and goals that program participants identify for themselves.

At first, caseworkers meet with new clients once a week for up to a year, then have monthly check-ins. Phone calls and texts are more frequent. Louisiana also provides a monthly stipend of up to $1,000.

"We want our young adults to learn how to budget," says Shannon Catanzaro, who oversees the extended foster care program for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS. "You need a little bit of income. You need to learn how to save your money. You need to learn how to pay bills. You need that money for housing."

Louisiana doesn't yet have data on whether LifeSet changes outcomes, because the program is still relatively new in the state.

But a 2015 study from Tennessee found that it boosted earnings, improved mental health and reduced domestic and intimate partner violence. However, it did not improve outcomes in educational attainment or criminal involvement.

A number of philanthropies have contributed millions of dollars to support the initiative. The programs in each of the states are driven, in part, by financial incentives from Youth Villages. For instance, Louisiana received a grant of $3 million to integrate the model into their new extended foster care program in 2019.

Jessica Foster, chief strategy officer at Youth Villages, says it's seed money for a population that traditionally has drawn little government funding, especially in poorer states where the priority tends to be helping children in crisis.

She says that many of the foster care or extended foster care systems did not always have age-appropriate interventions. For example, young adults at the ages of 18 and 19 would be treated the same as young teenagers. LifeSet challenges that framework.

Human connection is the key

For LaMaison, the nuts and bolts of money management and transportation planning are building blocks, but the key for her is to encourage the development of meaningful and healthy human connections.

"Sometimes we overlook part of living independently is actually interdependent living where we also have to have relationships and we need to build those relationships because they're better for us as adults," LaMaison says.

After visiting with Waldrop, she stops to see Jarmira Butler, a 21-year-old cosmetology student. There's a sense of closeness as the two women giggle together during Butler's lunch break from her classes. She was 18 when she was paired with LaMaison as her LifeSet specialist.

"We've been through plenty," LaMaison says. "Good and bad."

Butler was working on Bourbon Street selling alcohol to tourists when she first came out of foster care and realized she needed more help.

"I knew I wasn't completely ready to be alone," Butler says.

Like many young people who age out of the foster care system, Butler was about to move home with her mother and was struggling with the transition. She says LaMaison helped her navigate how to set boundaries, create a budget and more.

She's a mother now. Her son is 8 months old, and she's living with a partner who is helping to raise him. LaMaison says finding stable housing has been a recurring issue for Butler, especially after her family was displaced after Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Butler was left with a newborn and no electricity, so she evacuated to Texas, where her father lives. It was a setback.

Sometimes it seems like here in New Orleans, people forgot to dream ... They forgot there's something else out there.

"We had finally got it to where we had a savings [account], we were a month ahead on our bills," Butler explains. "And then Ida ... she took everything."

LaMaison says that in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, she had to resist the urge to fix things for Butler, and instead point her to local emergency resources.

"In the long run, what she didn't need was to fall back on DCFS, because where are we going to be next year if a hurricane hits?" says LaMaison. "DCFS isn't going to be there. So she needs to learn, 'Where do I go in my community to get the things and the help that DCFS has provided in the past?'"

Butler says LaMaison's voice now pops into her head when she's trying to navigate difficult situations, but she's finding the confidence to pursue her goal of getting her cosmetology license and starting her own business.

LaMaison says hearing these young people planning for the future means her job is done.

"I helped them dream," she says. "Sometimes it seems like here in New Orleans, people forgot to dream. They've been here so many generations and they've done the things the same every single generation. They forgot there's something else out there."

But she may never know what that "something else" will be as she says goodbye to these 21-year-olds.

In one of her last meetings with Waldrop, LaMaison gives him a parting gift. It's a tiny bell.

"All motorcycle riders should have a bell," she tells him. "It's called a guardian bell."

LaMaison hopes the bell will ward off the dangers of the road and keep Waldrop safe when she's no longer there.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.