Tysheara Moore, now 18, has been in foster care under the Philadelphia Department of Human Services since she was 10 years old.
Though she is currently placed with her biological mother, Moore was for years shifted between group homes and institutions.
"It made me homesick," Moore said.
"It made me feel like I didn't have [anybody] there to help me. It just seemed like everybody left me with whatever stranger and it felt like I didn't have anybody to turn to or talk to, there were so many new faces."
May is National Foster Care Month, and DHS is mounting an aggressive campaign to improve experiences for Moore and the thousands of other foster children aged 14 and over, who comprise about half of the youth in the agency's care and often go on to group homes or institutions.
"We want to change that," DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said Thursday.
"I believe we have a moral imperative to actively look for foster homes that serve older youth. They deserve a family setting."
Due to what Ambrose says is an "especially urgent" need for foster parents to house youth aged 14 and up, DHS is offering a rate increase of $300 per month to families who take in older children.
"Most of the money will go directly to what the youth wants to do, things like prom, sneakers, school activities, trips – those types of things that are really important to adolescent development and normalizing the experience of kids who have been abused or neglected," Ambrose said.
She said case notes will be checked on a monthly basis to ensure the money is being spent appropriately.
In an additional effort to raise awareness about the resources available to potential foster parents, DHS will on Thursday night held a town hall meeting in Hunting Park.
"This is just one town hall meeting in one neighborhood in Philadelphia," Ambrose said.
"If we get the response I expect to get, we'll be having additional town hall meetings to really go to parents and recruit for foster youths, because they deserve to be raised in the same environment I was."
She further noted the importance of catering to the specialized needs of older foster children as they reach critical transitional ages so they don't go on to commit crimes, become victims or suffer from mental health problems or drug addictions – fates foster children who go unadopted are statistically more likely to face.
"Youth who have been abused and neglected and are part of our system usually have a significant amount of trauma and are overwhelmed by almost everything and trying to fight to just to survive, so we know educational outcomes for youth in foster care are really bad," Ambrose said.
"Education is key to success and we need to particularly support them around education, transitional housing, jobs – all those kinds of things which are hard enough for any youth who live in a regular family setting are even more difficult for foster youth."
Moore said she's a big supporter of the agency's efforts.
"I think a lot of kids are going to be successful now," she said.
"A lot of kids are not going to be in the streets doing violent things if they have positive things to do with themselves. I think it's very wonderful to help them know there's not just violence outside – there's also success out there."
"Improving goals of children is a huge priority for this agency and something we're putting a lot of effort into," Ambrose said.
"One of the strategies is recruitment for foster homes for older youth, but there are many others."
Some additional initiatives now underway include:
>> Hiring an Older Youth Coordinator, herself a former foster child, to oversee outreach and activities and provide input on best policies and practices to improve the treatment of youth in foster care.
>> Taking advantage of new federal legislation adopted by Pennsylvania that allows DHS to pay subsidies to foster children who opt to remain in DHS care after the age of 18.
>> Hiring a new coordinator to conduct expedited permanency meetings with all older youth to try to identify family members who can house them.
>> Offering older foster children job training, housing assistance, education services and life skills development through the DHS Achieving Independence Center.