Parents prepare their children for independence by teaching them life skills that will help them make good decisions as adults. Many children, however, have to stand on their own before they’re ready. Kids in foster care who turn 18 before ever being adopted into a permanent, loving family often never receive the help they need in the transition to adulthood.
Every year, 1,000 Ohio youth “age-out” of foster care at age 18. They usually lack a reliable support system and are thrust into a harsh reality in which they’re at high risk of homelessness, unemployment, insufficient education, dependence on public assistance, human trafficking, trouble with the criminal justice system, and other barriers to success. Amy, a young adult now in her mid-20s, said, “Aging out of foster care at 18 still affects my life today. No child in a ‘normal’ home with a mom and dad could deal with being alone at 18 years-old, so we shouldn’t expect it for foster kids.”
After the tragic death of a Cincinnati foster child in 2011, I convened eight Child Safety Summits across the state to discuss Ohio’s child welfare system. These discussions revealed some of the obstacles foster care children face as they are about to leave the child welfare system. We took what we learned at our meetings and looked for ways to assist these children.
In 2013, my office issued a $1 million grant for “Ohio Reach,” a program that connects kids who are aging out of the foster care system with opportunities for higher education. We also funded two pilot projects – one serving Geauga and Portage Counties and the other serving Hamilton County – to help young people transitioning from foster care as they deal with past trauma, obtain a job, secure stable housing, and learn the life skills necessary to become successful adults.
Dana, a participant in Geauga and Portage counties’ Next Step program, said, “After aging out of foster care, I was on the streets with nowhere to stay and no food. Staying here (at Next Step) allowed me to focus on finding a job and a stable housing environment. I met people who cared about me and wanted to help me develop my skills to get a job and move forward.”
Another way we could offer these young people help is by extending support and services to age 21. Research confirms that foster youth in states where the age limit has been raised are more likely to have some college education and earn higher incomes. They’re also less likely to experience teen pregnancy or incarceration. “Aging out at 18 was, to say the least, a very big challenge,” said Dylan, a young adult in his early 20s. Had he “…been able to stay in foster care until age 21,” the three extra years “…would’ve allowed me to learn how to budget, live independently, and make sure that I could survive on my own.”
Foster youth like Amy, Dana, and Dylan need a supportive pathway to independence. That’s why I support House Bill 50 that Representatives Dorothy Pelanda and Cheryl Grossman introduced earlier this year which, among other provisions, extends foster care supports to age 21.
Such an extension would benefit both foster youth and taxpayers: According to a 2013 study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, every young person who ages out of foster care costs communities an average of $300,000 in public assistance, incarceration, lost wages and more over that person’s lifetime.
The most significant costs, of course, aren’t counted only in dollars and cents. And simply housing foster youth for three more years won’t guarantee a successful journey toward adulthood.
After she turned 23, Amberly was, in her words, “…on welfare assistance and homeless…the system failed me when it came to protecting and teaching me. I feel that no child should be left alone at 18.” Community agencies should use the extra three years to help foster youth like Amberly work through personal issues, learn practical skills, and help ensure they’ve been given the guidance and resources that will help enable them to embrace adult responsibilities.
I support extending support to foster youth from age 18 to 21. Ohio’s foster youth deserve all the assistance and preparation we can give them.
Mike DeWine is Ohio’s Attorney General and guest columnist.