Onondaga IL (Independent Living)

The Independent Living (IL) Skills program is a comprehensive, educational program serving Onondaga County foster care youth ages 14-21. Program components include: Group Skills Instruction; Individualized Assessments; Discussion Group; Annual Appreciation Event; Volunteer Experience; Recreation Activities; and participation at the annual NYS Youth Speak-Out & Event.

All referrals to the program come from the Onondaga County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) formerly the Department of Social Services. The curriculum includes many topics including the required NYS Office of Child & Family Services (OCFS) IL topics: Housing Location; Shopping; Alcohol/Substance Abuse Prevention; Money Management; Budgeting; Career Counseling; Job Placement; Job Retention; Preventive Health Care; Cooking/Nutrition; Obtaining High School Diploma; and Cleaning. Transportation is provided if necessary.

Liberty Resources began providing these services in Onondaga County in 1999. The weekly classes take place primarily at the Liberty program office at 1065 James Street, Syracuse, 13203. There is no cost for this program. The IL program is staffed by a master’s-level Program Educator and bachelor’s-level Youth Specialist.  Close coordination with each participant’s DCFS caseworker and foster parents or group home staff is essential.  The classes are held weekly during the school year on Thursday afternoons.

Scope of Services

The IL program was designed to help foster care youth learn the necessary information and develop the valuable skills to prepare them for living independently after foster care.  Staff endeavor to make learning everyday tasks, such as budgeting and cleaning, as fun and interesting as possible. The “hands-on” approach to learning gives each student the experiences necessary to be self-sufficient and confident to live on their own. In addition, the curriculum is designed to build assets proven to create youth success, among them:  Support, Empowerment, Connection & Positive Use of Time.

IL instruction can be conceptualized in three parts:   “hard” skills (ex. cooking & cleaning), “soft” skills (ex. goal setting & communication) and “invisible” skills (working with youth on their status/special needs as foster children).  A more in-depth explanation of the program components is as follows:

Group Instruction: A competency-based skills curriculum is used to cover the skill areas required by OCFS regulation.  In addition to these core requirements, additional sessions are offered covering such topics as: decision making, hygiene, healthy relationships, communication skills, community resources, anger management skills, and wellness.  Various presenters from the community are also invited to conduct sessions with the youth.  These presenters can include representatives from banking, health care, colleges, armed forces, landlords and others.  Liberty Resources staff and/or special speakers may also conduct presentations on issues related to HIV/AIDS, dating violence, adolescent pregnancy prevention and accessing mental health services.  Field trips to such places as grocery stores, laundromats or restaurants may also occur.

Individualized Assessment: Once youth are selected for the program, a preliminary assessment is administered, usually at a home visit meeting with the youth and their caregiver.  It is used to individualize the curriculum for the coming year and establish a baseline of skill proficiency.  The program uses a tool developed by long-time IL researcher, Dorothy Ansell for the Casey Family programs.  This measure, the Ansell-Casey Life Skills Assessment (ACLSA) consists of 113 items that assess skills, knowledge, and awareness in seven areas: Daily Living, Self-Care, Relationships and Communication, Housing and Money Management, Relationships and Communication, Career and Education Planning, and Looking Forward. The tool was created specifically for adolescents and young adults living in foster care.  It is also used, along with direct observation, as a post-assessment measure after a period of working on improving specific skills at the end of the program year.

Discussion Group: A key component of the program is the provision of monthly group discussion sessions.  These sessions are facilitated by a Liberty Resources masters- level social worker and focus on the common issues and feelings experienced by adolescents in foster care.  The goal of this experience is to build cohesiveness within the group as well as to reduce the feelings of isolation that foster care youth often encounter.  Other relevant topics may include: gratitude, loss, and adoption.  At the end of the school/program year, the IL group takes time to review lessons learned; say good-bye to those youth who will not be returning; and to celebrate the success of the participants.

Appreciation Event:  IL youth are asked to participate in the annual Appreciation
Event. This invitation-only event is designed to allow youth to select those individuals in
their life (ex. family, friends, caseworkers, and/or foster parents) that they would like to
treat to a dinner and thank for their support.  Youth are responsible for sending
invitations, planning (and sometimes preparing, serving and cleaning up the meal), and
making certificates and decorations.   Youth also create a program for the event which
has in the past involved exhibition of their talents and a themed party.  Part of the
evening is also dedicated to recognizing the various accomplishments of each participant.

Volunteer Experience: Foster care youth often find themselves as the ones who are being helped.  The goal of introducing volunteerism into the program is to provide youth with an empowering experience which comes from helping others, while also exposing them to career opportunities and challenging their skills in the process.  It is hoped that youth will have a sense of satisfaction from their contribution and feel connected to the individuals they serve.  Youth have volunteered at a number of different agencies over the years, such as the Food Bank, and the Samaritan Center.  They have also: made care packages for soldiers, distributed food and toys at Christmas and cleaned up a local park.

Recreation Activities:  The goals of this component are: (1) to provide youth with an opportunity to make constructive use of their leisure time and (2) to promote a positive connection with the youth’s community.  With that in mind, each participant is offered two (2) recreational opportunities throughout the year in conjunction with a unit about constructive use of leisure time.  Sometimes these activities are combined with other components such as graduation or group instruction.  In past years, the groups have: gone camping; done a ropes course; traveled to the Adirondacks, NYC & Washington DC; eaten out at a local restaurant; gone to the beach and Darien Lake; visited the Herkimer Diamond Mines; attended a Syracuse Chiefs game; and gone to the movies together.

Youth Speak-Out; Event: IL youth are helped to participate in the statewide OCFS Youth Speak-Out and Event.  NYS foster youth come together each August for a day of workshops, networking and advocacy.   Representatives from Family Court, OCFS and LDSS constitute a panel of invited guests to whom the youth take turns expressing their needs and concerns to in a public event.  Participation in this day-long conference and other state-sponsored foster youth initiatives (e.g., Youth In Progress) are included as a way of fostering leadership and advocacy skills and helping youth connect with other children with similar issues and concerns.