New bridges to life after foster care

The house, in many ways, seems too big for two.

Set in the new Pembrook Farms subdivision near Atlanta, the 3,000-square-foot two-story with the stone entrance has several empty rooms and, in places, bedsheets for drapes. Katrina Lawson, its new owner, isn't sure what to do with at least two rooms. Maybe a computer room for her daughter? "I don't know," she says.

For Ms. Lawson, there's a certain irony in her newfound status as homeowner. A former foster child who bounced from home to home, she is delighted finally, at age 24, to sink her roots into one place. She recently became one of the first in the nation to complete a new program aimed at helping foster kids who've "aged out" of state custody buy homes and other "major life assets" such as cars.

But Lawson, now a Fulton County sheriff's deputy, is also finding that her roomy new quarters require a mental adjustment. The $200,000 house is so spacious that it sometimes feels lonely, not unlike the childhood she still struggles to put behind her.

The program, funded primarily by the Jim Casey Foundation, is part of a movement to better address the needs of foster children as they exit state care, usually at age 18.

"Kids are struggling in our systems, and there is an obligation that [states and social service organizations] are increasingly meeting that it's no longer OK to say, 'Bye, have a good life,'" says Sue Christie, deputy executive director at the American Public Human Services Association in Washington. States "have gone to town to really stabilize these kids" after they age out of foster cares.

Driving the concern about the post- foster-care experience are statistics showing that states, acting in their role as "parent" to children found to be neglected or abused, are often not doing much better at child-rearing than the biological families.

In California, one-third of foster-care "graduates" become homeless within a year of leaving state custody, fewer than 10 percent enroll in college (despite a federal $5,000 stipend available to high school grads or GED holders) and only 1 percent graduate, and about one-fourth end up in jail within two years, according to the National Center for Youth Law. A University of Chicago study published last year found only 46 percent of former foster kids nationwide have a bank account.

"Most 18-year-olds in this country have not left home, but somehow we decide that foster youths should be different," says Mark Courtney, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, which conducted the study. "That 'independent living services' programs alone are going to make foster kids, of all people, successful at being on their own is a cruel hoax."

Rising attention to aged-out wards is a reaction to a deep problem, says TV producer Roger Weisberg, who chronicled the lives of 12 former foster children over nearly two years when making last year's PBS documentary "Aging Out." Though many analysts blame beleaguered state bureaucracies, it's not so simple, says Mr. Weisberg. Most of the ex-foster children featured in his film wanted nothing to do with the state system - yet struggled from having no nest to return to.

"What they all had in common was a real sort of ardent desire to be on their own and successful, yet they all lacked, for the most part, the security and direction that come from consistent adult supervision, limits, and just plain old love and support," says Weisberg.

The advent of private-sector programs like the one that helped Lawson is a way to lend a helping hand - without forcing renewed contact with state bureaucracies.

"We create door openings for young people," says Tyronda Minter of the Metropolitan Atlanta Youth Opportunities Initiative, which administers the Casey funds locally in partnership with Washington Mutual Bank and United Way. About 1,000 current and former foster kids in 12 cities are taking part in the Opportunity Passport program, which matches participants' own savings, either dollar for dollar or some lesser ratio.

In Lawson's case, she did find a foster parent whom today she calls Mom. That long-lasting connection with an older adult, she says, has helped her stay focused. Without that motherly influence, she may, like her sisters, have struggled more than she did.

States, for their part, say they've moved to ease the transition from ward to citizen. Some have lifted adoption rates by nearly 50 percent. Massachusetts and Illinois are letting foster children stay in the system past age 18. When given the option, the average foster child stays until almost 20.

"We're looking for a much larger focus on creating permanency and getting a sense of ... what their experiences have been, and what they're really looking for in these long-term relationships, whether it's proxy parents or simply, as one boy said, a place where he could call for a Thanksgiving recipe," says Curtis Child, a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law in Sacramento, Calif.

Buying a home may be the most symbolic act a former foster child can attempt, says Lawson, originally from Peoria, Ill. She lived in four foster homes after she and two sisters were taken from a "neglectful" family when she was 7. In 2000, she meticulously planned her move to Atlanta, got a county job, and is now working with a counselor to overcome a deep mistrust of people - "I hold grudges," she says - that she credits to both her family upbringing and a topsy-turvy foster-child career.

"Sometimes it gets lonely coming home to a big old house," she says. But this young mother understands the possibilities - and her own obligations as a parent. "I'm determined to have the life for me and my daughter that I never had as a little girl."

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