Vol. 19, No. 1 • November 2014

The CARS Agreement: A Bridge to Independence

by Jeanne Preisler

Nearly every young person turning 18 in America wants to leave their parents' house. In their minds, they are "grown." Their parents' rules and curfews seem ridiculous. They want to be out on their own!

Yet in reality, more and more young adults are living with their parents. I suspect the desire to be out on their own remains strong, yet logistically it doesn't make sense. Jobs just aren't as plentiful. Even when you have a job, it may not pay enough to live on.

For many young people, living at home to save money while working or going to school is the best option.

Different Options for Youth in Care
But what about youth who turn 18 in foster care? Many young adults aging out of our system live in homeless shelters or "couch-surf." Others have no option but to live on the street, where dangers include violence and human trafficking. Some of those who head back to their family of origin find conditions there stressful, unhealthy, or unsafe.

Keep in mind, when many youth in foster care turn 18, they're still in high school!

Every youth in North Carolina needs a stable place to live after they turn 18. Foster parents work hard to help children heal from trauma and navigate the adolescent years. Yet, too often, we act as if something magical happens on that 18th birthday and the young person will somehow be fine on their own.

Young people in foster care often think this, too!

Young Adults Need Support
The reality is that the part of the brain that manages higher level decision making doesn't fully evolve until we are in our mid to late twenties. For this reason, it is not realistic to think a youth is going to be able to successfully navigate the complexities of the adult world alone.

Young adults need people like you and me in their lives--experienced, wise, older individuals. (Even if they do not see us as wise!)

We can help them make good decisions, help them when they are stuck on the side of road, and make sure they have a healthy meal every now and again. We can help them navigate their healthcare or ongoing schooling.

Even young adults living with their families of origin need this level of support. For youth whose lives were impacted by the child welfare system, this level of support is even more important. Research shows that the more caring adults young people have in their life, the better their overall outcomes will be.

In an ideal world, every child would find permanence before their 18th birthday and have strong connections to many caring adults who will be there for a lifetime of birthdays and holidays. But for those that do not have all this, it is our job (as foster parents, as social workers, as community members) to take care of them. A CARS agreement is a tool that can help us do that.

The CARS Agreement
In North Carolina, we have something called a CARS agreement. This agreement allows a young person to remain in a licensed home or facility while continuing their education (or until they are 21 years of age). CARS stands for Contractual Agreement for Continuing Residential Support.

Under a CARS agreement the youth is not in DSS custody. Rather, they have voluntarily agreed to be in the agency's "placement authority" for the duration of the agreement. This allows the foster parent to continue to receive financial assistance to provide housing and care for the young adult.

So far, so good. But there are at least four challenges to entering into a CARS agreement:

  1. County DSS agencies are encouraged to offer CARS, but they don't have to.

  2. Youth often say no to the CARS. Tired of living under the umbrella of "DSS," many quickly dismiss the idea without fully understanding the benefits.

  3. Under a CARS the financial assistance provided to the foster parent is typically the standard board rate. If the foster parents have been providing therapeutic treatment foster care for the youth, moving to the standard board rate means a reduction in financial assistance for the parents and their supervising agency.

  4. Many foster parents and youth are unaware the CARS is even an option.

Kendra's Perspective
Despite these challenges, the CARS has made a huge difference in many young people's lives. Consider Kendra. When she turned 18 in foster care, Kendra opted to sign a CARS. This helped her attend a university she loves, ensured she had a stable home to go to during college breaks, and allowed her, as she put it, to "exceed the expectations that the world has for former foster youth."

The statistics are sobering. In 2012 more than 23,000 youth aged out of foster care in the U.S. (USDHHS, 2013). These young people are less likely to graduate from high school and less likely to attend or graduate college.

One study of young people who aged out found that by age 26, 80% had earned at least a high school degree or GED, compared to 94% in the general population, while just 4% had earned a 4-year college degree, compared to 36% of youth in the general population (Courtney, et al., 2011). Kendra believes the CARS can help us change these statistics.

Kendra shared some great ideas for making the CARS work better for more young people in our state. For example, Kendra suggests that we do the following:

  • Be realistic. We cannot have one conversation about the CARS 90 days before the youth turns 18 and expect them to fully grasp the impact of this decision. We need to start discussing this option with the youth long before they turn 18, and discuss it often.

  • Since the goal is to provide the support youth need to ultimately live on their own, foster parents should consider giving the youth half the monthly board payment. This would allow the youth to begin learning to manage money, and it would be an incentive for the youth to participate in a CARS agreement in the first place.

  • If your county is not offering CARS agreements, advocate for a change. A CARS, coupled with educational funding support like NC REACH and ETV funds, can help young people achieve great things.

My Challenge to You
We want our young people to have permanence. But if that can't be achieved, none of our kids should age out alone.

So here's a challenge for all foster parents in North Carolina:

  • Be a lifelong, caring adult for at least one child touched by the foster care system.

  • Be sure you talk with your child about the CARS option if there is even a slight chance they may not find permanence before their 18th birthday.

  • Talk to your county's LINKS social worker to see if there are any youth who have recently aged out that might need extra support.

Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

We are the thoughtful, committed citizens she was referring to. We must ensure those aging out of the foster care system will not have to do it alone.

Jeanne Preisler, a forever mother to two children and former foster parent, works for the NC Division of Social Services.

What Does a CARS Look Like?

Follow this link to find out: http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/forms/dss/dss-5108.pdf

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~