May 27, 2013

Off Campus: Young people in foster care need a better path forward

Youth 'age out' of the system at age 18, though they still need support as they build their lives.

By MARTY ZANGHI and MICHAEL AUGUSTINE Special to the Press Herald

PORTLAND - As any parent knows, 18-year-olds may be old enough to be recognized as legal adults, but they are hardly prepared to face the world without the support of a loving family and personal connections to their communities.

Teenagers in foster care are no different. And yet, too many of them in Maine and across the country approach adulthood facing tremendous challenges, having "aged out" of a system before being connected to a permanent family and community, unprepared to be on their own.

When Michael, my co-author, aged out of foster care as a teenager, he had not found permanent family connections; he relied on assistance from the state of Maine for his medical needs and help with college tuition. While attending college and living on his own for the first time, Michael faced the difficult transition to college, as well as abandonment issues from his biological family. He had no family to turn to.

Through help offered by state agencies, Michael received counseling and was able to become the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.

Throughout this time, Michael also maintained a connection with a former foster parent, Susan Steed, who adopted him when he was 23, thus giving him a permanent family.

The common cycle of generational foster care will end with Michael. He now has the financial, mental and emotional stability to be the father he never had, ensuring that his daughter will remain with him and not be placed in foster care.

There are 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Each year, about 26,000 become too old to continue receiving foster care services. On the day that each of those young people turns 18, they are suddenly expected to find a place to live, secure employment and plan their financial future -- completely on their own.

In Maine, approximately 150 youth leave foster care each year when they turn 18. Many will struggle to find housing and jobs, pay for medical care or finish their education. These are costly consequences.

We all pay the price for this abrupt and unnecessary end to services for young people on the brink of adulthood.

Studies show that youth who age out of foster care are more likely than their peers in intact families to experience problems such as becoming a parent too early, dropping out of high school, becoming homeless or doing jail time. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative estimates that these bad outcomes cost the U.S. upward of $7 billion per year. In Maine, the estimated cost is $45 million.

The good news is that by making changes today to improve the lives of young people in foster care, we will all see the benefits through a more productive work force, fewer unplanned pregnancies, lower health care costs and reduced crime.

Extending foster care services beyond age 18 is a strong first step toward helping these young people build better lives. Since 1972, Maine has offered extended foster care to youth up to age 21, but we know that the need for support continues well into the 20s for most young people.

Maine would do well to consider extending foster care beyond age 21 to ensure that these young adults are able to lay the foundation for economic success through earning a degree or credential, securing employment and establishing supportive family and community connections.

Merely extending care is not enough. Young people will make the decision to remain in foster care beyond age 18 only if the services and opportunities meet their needs as emerging adults. In other words, when it comes to extending foster care services, quality -- not quantity -- is what really matters.

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