Aging out of foster care

Before pushing kids out of the system, help them be independent

In a society like ours that believes in protecting children and giving each child the best possible start in life, it is ironic that we invest vast sums in foster care and other important programs to assist children under the age of 18, but then spend so little to help them transition into adulthood.

Every year 25,000 young people in foster care turn 18 and leave foster care. This means that young people in state-supervised programs must leave foster care whether or not they have the skills to maintain an apartment, seek and hold a job, or balance a checkbook. Too many 18-year-olds emerge without having had a stable foster-care environment or adequate mental-health services or a quality education. Moreover, it is well established that the vast majority of children who leave foster care when they turn 18 chronologically may not be 18 educationally, emotionally, or socially.

In some states, when teenagers in foster care turn 16, they are placed in an "independent living program." These programs, while different in every state, are designed to prepare children for life on their own. They are taught how to budget, maintain a checking account, keep house, pay rent, prepare meals, and get a job. But even two years is a very short time to make these children independent or self-sufficient. In fact, there aren't many 18-year-olds from intact families who have the ability to live on their own. And if they do, they usually have plenty of support - financial and emotional - from Mom and Dad.

According to one recent study, 12 to 18 months after they left foster care, half of those who left were unemployed and a third were receiving public assistance. Clearly, youths who "age-out" of foster care are among the most vulnerable and the most at risk. We need to change our thinking and improve the opportunity for these children to become productive citizens.

Recently, the White House announced a $280 million five-year plan to fund state programs that help teens leaving foster care obtain housing, health insurance, and training so that they will be able to live independently. This initiative should be part of a comprehensive effort that includes:

*Requiring life-skills assessment of children in their early teenage years. This will enable our social-service agencies early on to help children build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.

*Furnishing foster parents with additional support and education, teaching them the importance of modeling behavior and talking to children about their hopes and dreams and what they will need to achieve them.

*Establishing child service agency guidelines that clearly state that turning 18 does not automatically "emancipate" a child. States should be held accountable to prepare these youths for successful futures by providing reasonable means for them to have the skills they need to hold down a job or the education needed to apply for college.

*Providing concrete assistance in health care, housing, and other support until these young people turn 21.

For children leaving foster care, becoming independent is a long-term process. Foster children, because of the severe hardships they have suffered and challenges they must overcome, need to develop lasting ties to adults - either adoptive parents or caring mentors.

We cannot leave the streets, courts, or jails to solve this problem. Better services, innovative programs, and more support are the real answer for the foster youths facing the daunting prospect of emancipation.

*Ruth Massinga is chief executive officer of The Casey Family Program, a Seattle-based private foundation that provides planned, long-term family foster care for children and youths in 14 states.

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