Imagine being in the foster-care system for years and suddenly, on your 18th birthday, you’re expected to fend for yourself. Get a job, find a place to live and make good of yourself. It’s a tall order for any 18-year-old, all the more so when you’ve suffered abuse and neglect or drug dependency has been part of your world.
The odds are stacked against this group. Based on research by Ohio Fostering Connections, a coalition that advocates for foster youth, by the time these teens reach age 21 more than 20 percent will experience homelessness, 71 percent of women will be pregnant, only 36 percent will be working either full- or part-time, and 36 percent will have been incarcerated. Nearly half will lack a high-school degree or GED.
Worse yet, they’re especially vulnerable to human trafficking. The National Youth Foster Institute reports that 60 percent of all child sex-trafficking victims have been in the child welfare system.
Provide these 18-year-olds with extended assistance, however, and good things happen. School enrollment and high-school graduation/GED rates increase, and homelessness and incarceration rates decrease.
The Ohio General Assembly addressed the problem in 2016 by passing the Fostering Connections Act, which authorized the Department of Job and Family Services to implement a new service program known as “Bridges.” Now, those who age out of foster care are eligible for continued services until age 21.
The department contracted with the Child and Family Health Collaborative to administer Bridges statewide. The goal is to help these teens live independently. Financial assistance for room and board is available, as is coaching from social workers who help their clients create and achieve educational and employment goals and teach critical thinking, financial management and self-care.
Mark Mecum oversees the collaborative and emphasizes that Bridges is not an extension of foster care. “These are young adults we’re guiding. There’s no hand-holding here. We want to empower these people and give them the tools to be successful.”
Mecum says that only 25 other states provide extended services for foster care youths. Ohio is the only state with a program administered by a nonprofit.
Too new to evaluate fully, the program has shortcomings, says Lisa Brooks of Sojouners Care Network, a nonprofit serving southeastern Ohio as a Bridges provider. For one, eligibility criteria — be enrolled in school or employed for 80 hours a month or be medically exempted from either — is a hurdle for many. So too is the date of emancipation. A candidate must have emancipated from foster care at age 18; no matter how many housing transitions a teen may have had, if he left the system at 17, he’s ineligible.
In addition, the paperwork is tough. “The eligibility documentation is detail-driven and difficult to obtain.” says Brooks. “It’s hardly an easy process.”
Adding to the problem is that young people in foster care don’t get adequate life-skills training.
While always mandated, “there has been inconsistency in the state in how it’s administered,” says Marcus Games, Sojouners’ co-executive director. “Some counties were good; others not so good.”
The problem has been remedied in part by the new Comprehensive Case Management and Employment Program, which is funded with federal dollars and administered by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The program brings together teachers, caseworkers and other specialists to help prepare foster youths 14 years and older for the workforce. “Finally,” said Games, “we’re seeing a coordinated effort in the state.”
The challenges these young adults face is largely based, according to Games, “on the absence of permanent relationships in their lives — sources of support they can fall back on.” Without the stability that comes from permanent relationships, these young adults are adrift, trying to make do with systems provided by the state.
Ohio is making headway, but it’s still a scary proposition for an 18-year-old who ages out of the system.
Jack D’Aurora is a partner with the Behal Law Group. firstname.lastname@example.org