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Children in the foster system: Aging out, acting out

At age 18, foster children are out of the system - for better or worse

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At the age of 10, after getting into one too many fights, Hayden Ayers ended up in Iowa’s foster care system.

His childhood was riddled with abuse from his father, and he used violence to cope, which in turn led to his being in and out of the foster care system. He stayed in a youth shelter in Dubuque, until he aged out at 18.

Soon, he spent a month in jail after getting in a fight. After that, he became homeless.

Without the rules or structure that living in a foster home provides, Ayers was scared and didn’t know where to turn. He even considered committing another crime so he’d be sent to jail — a place where, in his mind, he’d find that structure and controlled environment he needed and had while in the foster system.

“I came out of the system at 18 and had all this freedom,” said Ayers, now 21. “I freaked out. I got scared.”

Ayers is far from alone. During Iowa’s 2015 budget year, 551 youth aged out of the state’s foster care system. That is, they turned 18 without permanency, or a family to rely on for emotional and financial support. Nationwide, some 26,000 foster children aged out of the system at 18, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St. Louis-based foundation.

For kids such as Ayers who leave foster care at 18 without finding a family, or reconciling with their own, it can have negative effects, researchers said — from increased chances of homelessness, drug use, unemployment, early parenthood and time in jail.

 

That population also has a greater chance of experiencing mental health issues. Data from the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) shows that of the 256 foster-care children who started the state’s voluntary aftercare services for kids who aged out in fiscal year 2015:

• 62 percent received a mental health assessment, counseling or therapy in the previous year

• 29 percent attempted suicide

• 34 percent inflicted some form of self-harm.

Ayers today is working on earning his general degree at Kirkwood Community College. He has an apartment. But not everyone has managed to find their footing.

“Research has shown that youth who age out of foster care without achieving permanency, without going back to a family or finding another legal, permanent option, such as a relative or guardian, are at a real disadvantage because they don’t have a trusted adult they can depend on for a lot of things that happen to young people as they move from teenagers to young adults,” said Miriam Landsman, an associate professor at the University of Iowa whose research focuses on child welfare.

“That’s why, over the past few years, there’s been a lot more attention and resources dedicated to this rather vulnerable population.”

What's the government doing?

States have a vested interest in making sure those who leave foster care at 18 do well. That’s because each group of young people leaving the system costs society an additional $8 billion in welfare, Medicaid, lost wages and incarceration costs compared to people of the same age who weren’t in foster care, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

All states provide some sort of independent living services to help these youth transition into adulthood, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a Denver based group that studies trends in state government.

In Iowa, that program is the Iowa Aftercare Services Network, a network of nine private youth-serving agencies that provides services to these youth to help them move to adulthood and achieve self-sufficiency by helping them set goals, find employment and housing, access and keep public benefits and connect them to other supports. Foundation 2 and Four Oaks provide those services in the Cedar Rapids area.

There also are various education and training grants available for aged-out foster children. In addition, 72 percent of network participants were eligible for monthly stipends in 2015, averaging about $528, for rent and other living expenses.

In fiscal year 2015, 760 former foster children participated in the network in Iowa, according to the organization’s annual outcomes report.

“Signing up for health care, signing up for their GED, those are all things most parents are supporting their children in doing,” said Amy McCoy, DHS spokeswoman. “These are kids that don’t have that support structure.

“With trauma and abuse in their past, those can be really challenging things to access. We have a really good program in place to achieve those accomplishments.”

Iowa’s program experiences some success, according to its fiscal year 2015 report. Results show that, of those who exited the program in the last fiscal year, 50 percent worked at least 25 hours a week compared 27 percent when they entered the program, 87 percent had earned a high school diploma upon exiting the program, compared to 75 percent when they began working with the services.

“We feel pretty good about what we have,” McCoy said.

“Without this program, I would probably still be living on the streets,” said Celia Van Meter, 18.

She entered the foster care system at age 12 and has been in and out of it ever since. “I was scared to death. It helped me (apply for) financial aid and register for classes and do all those things I would never have known how to do otherwise.”

As for exiting the foster care system, she said, “You’re not sure where to go next. Not sure if you’re going to make it, if you’re going to live on the streets. It’s just that feeling of uncertainty and stress, and it’s not a good feeling.”

Extending Foster Care

In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allows states to extend foster care services to youth up to age 21 and receive federal funding for it. While 22 states have done that, according to the NCSL, Iowa hasn’t.

 

“It’s an ongoing conversation,” McCoy said. “There’s a financial cost to the state for extending foster care to 21, and secondly ... we have an outstanding transition program for youth 18 to 21.”

But a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, which specializes in policy research that benefits children and families, shows that youth in extended foster care programs tend to do better than those who leave the system at 18.

That study tracked those who had extended care in Illinois versus those who didn’t in Iowa and Wisconsin, showing that those who remained in the system until 21 were less likely to experience negative outcomes.

“The economic hardships faced by the young people that leave care (at 18) are much greater than the cases in Illinois,” said Mark Courtney, a national expert on child welfare issues and policies who co-authored the study. “They’re more likely to be homeless and food insecure, have utilities turned off. The main reason they do better is their basic needs are being met by the state.”

The results of that study were actually instrumental in getting the federal government to provide funding for extended foster care, Courtney said, though nearly half the states, such as Iowa, haven’t pursued it.

“Iowa does have ... a subsidy for some young people, but it isn’t the same thing as extending foster care,” Courtney said.

What’s more, he added, is the study showed no negative effects of remaining in foster care until 21 — and there was an increase in those attending college, earning more and being more involved with their own children.

“There’s an argument in saying, ‘That’s the benefit in cost and return on investment?’ But most parents don’t ask themselves that question when their children become adults,” Courtney said, referring to the argument that the state must serve as parents to foster children.

“As I like to say, no middle-class parent at a cocktail party with their peers would say, ‘Yeah, my son or daughter turned 18 and I shook their hands and I said good luck.’ This is just kind of normal. Half of young people ... are living at home. Why is it that you’re supposed to be done at 18?”

“Even though Iowa has a very robust set of services for this population already, by formally expanding the opportunity for young people to stay in formal foster care, it allows for a more secure funding base for those services and support to continue,” said Carol Behrer, executive director of the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa, an advocacy group for youth development policies. “They’re almost entirely based on annual state appropriations.”

DHS bill gives foster children more time to plan — by Chelsea Keenan

Children in the foster care system will get an earlier start at planning for the transition to adulthood under a Department of Human Services bill making its way through the Iowa Legislature.

The bill, which passed the Iowa Senate and made it through a House committee in time for the final funnel deadline, would allow the child to start developing a transition plan at 14 years old rather than 16 years old.

The child also can choose up to two individuals, such as a caseworker or foster parent, to help design the plan.

A transition plan touches on:

• Education

• Employment services

• Health care coverage

• Housing and money management

• Relationships, including local opportunities to have a mentor.

Kaci O’Day-Goldstein, Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association executive director, said making plans for life after 18-years-old is extremely important, and the state bill better aligns DHS standards with initiatives already underway.

IFAPA holds transition conferences for caregivers and children aged 14 and older, she said, to talk about life skills, from how to pick up medications from the pharmacy to how to budget. In addition, Iowa schools began developing an individualized education plan for children with special needs — including foster children — that includes goals and postsecondary education plans.

O’Day-Goldstein said having the state, schools and community supports all work in tandem is crucial to teaching these children how to access resources and deal with potential future challenges.

“When you’re in college and you have car problems, you call your parents,” she said. “It’s so important for these kids — who have bounced around facilities and foster homes — to have someone they can go to.

“We want them to be as prepared as possible,” she said.

O’Day-Goldstein added that she’s happy the state is making it more a priority to help these children plan their futures.

“A child in foster care or living with non-birth parents have experienced additional trauma and losses that make it more imperative to teach independence, life skills and how to function in our society,” she said. “By being able to focus on transitions at age 14 allows more time to offer stability and planning for a youth. It allows foster parents and care givers to focus on the child and shift some responsibility to the care giver to assist the child into adulthood.”

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