Continue Foster Care benefits to Age 21, State Officials Urge
A bipartisan group of state elected officials, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced their support for extending foster care benefits from 18 to 21 years of age at a March 9 Capitol press conference.
Despite annually spending of nearly $1.7 billion on child welfare services, foster care remains one of California’s more glaring public policy failures. Foster kids, required to leave the system at 18, have higher rates of unemployment, lower educational attainment, incarceration and substance abuse. Twenty-five percent become incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care.
The program’s failures were eloquently spelled out by Kevin West, a 20-year-old former foster youth from Santa Cruz.
“The night I turned 18 I was told I had to leave my group home. The money I had saved ran out in two weeks. I slept in the woods or on a bench. I was homeless for one year,” West said.
Now in a transitional housing program, which helped him pay his rent and groceries and learn to cope, West is a community college student hoping to transfer to the University of Santa Cruz and become a social worker.
“The state of California is really the parent of these kids,” said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, at the press conference. “Foster youth needs a safety net.”
Like her counterpart in the Senate — President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat — Bass is eager to improve California’s performance caring for the it’s nearly 80,000 foster kids.
Along with Assemblyman Jim Beall, a Santa Clara Democrat, Bass is co-authoring a measure that would allow the state to continue offering foster care benefits through age 21.
The GOP governor said in a statement after the press conference he favors the age increase but did not specifically endorse Bass and Beall’s legislation.
The extension of services is also a recommendation of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care.
California Supreme Court Associate Justice Carlos Moreno, the commission’s chair, said as a foster parent himself, he “experienced the trials and tribulations firsthand.”
Extending services through age 21 would also allow California to tap money contained in the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act signed last October, which could be used to subsidize the additional services. The act allows benefits to continue to age 21 if a foster youth is working or in school.
Bass cited a study, which concludes that whatever costs accrue are outweighed by the benefits of extended assistance.
The study uses a six-year comparison of what happened to 700 foster kids in Iowa and Wisconsin, which ended aid at 18, and in Illinois, which offers aid through 21 years of age.
In Illinois, pregnancies have decreased during ages 17 through 19. No emancipated foster kids are homeless.
The study, by Mark Courtney of Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington, concludes that conservatively for every $1 spent on extending benefits to age 21, there is $2.40 in benefit.
In addition, those who continued to receive benefits until they were 21 were two times more likely to be pursuing a high school diploma and two times less likely to be suffering a substance abuse problem. They are also three times more likely to be enrolled in college and 65 percent less likely to have been arrested.
The federal law, which won bipartisan backing, also contains increased financial incentives to adopt foster kids, particularly older ones and ones with special needs. It also offers financial assistance to kids who leave the system after a member of their “kin” becomes their legal guardian.
Also in attendance, former Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton who now head’s the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes.
Bass and Beall’s bill has not been scheduled for a hearing. It will certainly pass its first committee hearing – Beall chairs Assembly Human Services.
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