When foster care teens `graduate'. Lack of programs, shortage of money leaves many unprepared to strike out on their own at 18

As Joan neared her 18th birthday two years ago, she finally seemed to have her life in order. After unhappy years in foster homes she had found stability and, she thought, love. She was a part-time teacher's aide in a day-care facility, liked it, and was good at it. But the day she turned 18 her world turned upside down. Because she was 18, state reimbursement checks stopped coming to her foster mother, who then threw her out: no money, no home. Joan was shocked, and unprepared to live on her own. With nowhere to turn she moved in with her boyfriend, and her biggest concern became that she would become pregnant.

Joan became undependable at work, arriving late or not at all, and the quality of her work lessened dramatically. At first her employer tried to help. But three months later he let her go.

No one knows where Joan is now.

Failure to prepare children for life after foster care has long been a deficiency in many American foster programs. In the early 1980s Trudy Festinger studied 270 children who had ``aged out'' of foster care in New York City in 1975. She found they ``were quite critical of their preparation for independent living.''

Across the United States foster care programs have placed ``much greater emphasis since then on developing programs to prepare young people for independent living,'' says Dr. Festinger, a professor of research at New York University's School of Social Work. But much more remains to be done.

Last year, under the prodding of Rep. George Miller (D) of California, Congress passed a law that would provide $45 million to help states administer programs ``designed to assist children ... in making the transition....''

But that measure has not yet been put fully into effect. Further, the Reagan administration wants to repeal the law to save money because of ``the very difficult financial situation'' in which the US now finds itself. That was how Dodie Livingston phrased it in testimony late last week before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. She is the commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The prospects that Congress would be willing to repeal the law are negligible.

The new program, called Independent Living Initiative, is ``not necessary,'' Commissioner Livingston told the committee, because states can use other federal funds for this purpose. But state and local agencies say they don't have enough money, from the federal government or other sources, for ``aging out'' purposes.

The most serious financial deficiency, agencies say, is inadequate funding to provide families with the many kinds of social assistance that they need.

Livingston says that although her agency would like to kill the independent-living program, it will put it into effect. ``We are ready to review applications as soon as they are submitted, and will disburse funds to the states as expeditiously as possible.'' HHS's goal, she said, is to award a grant within 45 days after an application is received.

Some children's advocates say the department's pace has been anything but expeditious. Linda Greenan, a senior policy analyst of the Child Welfare League of America, says HHS was required to issue regulations on how the law would be put into effect within 60 days after its enactment, which was April 7, 1986, but ``none have been made.'' Instead, eight months after passage of the law, on Feb. 10, HHS issued temporary instructions to states on how to apply for the funds. Applications are due on May 11.

In testimony last week before the House committee Ms. Greenan charged that ``HHS has effectively caused the start-up of this program to be delayed by approximately one year. In the life of a child for whom this program is intended, one year of services - such as job training, educational options, shopping, banking, planning, and problem solving - is literally worth that child's lifetime. And for that child, it may now be too late.''

Representative Miller says ``it's too late'' if foster children don't receive substantial aid until they're leaving the system. Even more serious than insufficient assistance to youngsters who are ``aging out,'' he says, are inadequacies at early stages of foster care. ``The problem,'' he says, ``is the front end of that system is not working ... [there is no] proper supervision and monitoring.'' Too often, he says, children ``simply move from Point A to Point B,'' without adequate care on the way.

Meanwhile, community agencies do the best they can to prepare foster teen-agers for their commencements. It isn't easy.

Take Frankie: Allegheny County Children and Youth Services, which serves Pittsburgh, is trying to help him. Seventeen years old, polite but wary, he's been in foster care just half an hour. He's giving a visiting reporter a sound thrashing in the fine art of pool, bending over a table incongruously set in the former chapel of a one-time convent. Now called ``The Whale's Tale,' it's where all Pittsburgh teens from 13 to 17 come when they enter foster care.

Frankie works part-time at a fast-food restaurant. His goal: ``to be emancipated'' - to leave foster care and be on his own, either by judicial decree or by turning 18.

He's been in foster care before. He's back because he ran away from his previous placement; he didn't like it because, he says, ``they didn't have any rules.'' But one reason he was allowed increased freedom there was that the agency was trying to prepare him for the time a few months hence when he would be entirely on his own.

Frankie says he likes places with structure and rules, but counselors have a different perspective. They say he finds it difficult to get along with people in authority, from foster parents to employers. They would like to get him to see himself as others do.

Would it be an easier task if his past had been different? If the city agency had been organized in the past the more-efficient way it is now, with one social worker following through on every family's case, instead of the previous revolving-door approach? If, when Frankie first experienced trouble at home, preventive services had existed that could have helped his family solve whatever its problems, thus enabling him to live at home?

What of tomorrow's Frankies and Joans? Perhaps today's push toward preventive assistance can keep most of them out of foster care. But government at all levels must provide enough money for enough preventive services to make a difference.

Last of four articles. The first three ran April 22, 23, and 24.

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