Around 20,000 foster kids age out of the system every year. In most cases, whatever help they had been getting is taken away too.

People who were once profoundly failed by their parents are once again left without the guidance, support and protection most of us get from family.

It is a steep cliff – and many former foster kids fall off. There needs to be something to catch them.

A new program coming to Maine could be part of the safety net. The Foster Youth to Independence Initiative, announced last week by U.S. Housing and Urban Development, could extend housing vouchers to as many as 25 former foster children.

Of the kids who age out of the system – rather than, say, those who are reunited with family, or ultimately adopted – 28 percent experience homelessness by age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition Database; in some states, it’s as high as 40 percent.

Such a program has a lot of potential. Twenty-five vouchers means 25 fewer young adults stuck on the street, with all that entails. And targeting a population so prone to homelessness has worked before – just look at the success with veterans.

But kids in the foster system must also be engaged well before they age out. To get to that point, most of them have been shuffled from placement to placement, sometimes into group homes or other institutionalized settings, piling insecurity and disarray on top of whatever trauma and tumult they experienced at their birth home.

As a result, at each point along the way they are in danger of falling behind and out of line with their peers. It sets them up for a tough life. It is very costly to society.

Only about half of foster kids complete high school, compared with 70 percent of their peers. Only about 1 in 5 college-qualified foster youth goes on to post-secondary education, compared to 60 percent of their peers.

By age 26, just 4 percent of kids who aged out of the foster system will earn a college degree. Only half will have a job by 24.

It’s no wonder so many end up homeless. To keep things from getting that far, foster kids need help all along the way.

They need to be prepared for college-level work in high school, not lost in the crowd because they switch schools so often. They need treatment for the mental and behavioral health issues more prevalent in children who go through the foster system.

Without parents to guide them, foster kids need assistance with the college admissions process — everything from finding out about schools to figuring out financial aid. Once in college, they need some sort of replacement for the emotional support usually provided by parents.

Youth in the foster care system face a lot of barriers to a productive, fulfilling life. The appearance of the HUD program in Portland shows that at least some people are thinking about this vulnerable, underserved population. More should follow suit.


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