THE AVERAGE parent in California doesn’t expect his or her child to achieve full adulthood — in the form of complete self-sufficiency — at the age of 18. In fact, it’s not until the age of 26 that this average child is able to get by without leaning on mom and dad at least a little bit — whether it’s a place to live, given California’s astronomical housing prices, help with college tuition or maybe the used car that gets her back and forth to her first job. The average cost for mom and dad, for this launch into adulthood? Approximately $44,000.
If only the state of California cared so much about the realities facing its children. Foster children are turned out of their parents’ house at the age of 18, to survive, and rarely thrive, on their own. The statistics are daunting for their futures and expensive for taxpayers: Less than 3 percent graduate from college. They are disproportionately represented in the prison system, and female foster youth are four times more likely to receive public assistance than the general population.
Now we have a chance at reversing these outcomes. State Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, are introducing a bill to create a “transitional guardian program” for foster youth aging out of the system. The program will offer former foster youth tuition money, housing vouchers, and — crucially — a mentor of their choice to dispense the money and report their progress to the state, until the youth reaches the age of 24 or is prepared to launch themselves.
This Supportive Transitional Emancipation Program (STEP) has similar precedents at both the state and national levels, so there’s little danger of California forming a new program that won’t work. In 2002, Congress authorized the Chafee Educational Training Vouchers, which offer former foster youth $5,000 a year for tuition or vocational training. Despite spotty distribution — the funds dribble out at a notoriously slow pace — the program is constantly oversubscribed.
Within California, the best examples are in the nonprofit sector. The Guardian Scholars program, sponsored by the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, offers emancipated foster youth financial aid, housing and mentoring so that they can attend participating colleges — and it boasts a retention rate of nearly 70 percent, better than the community at large. It was wise of Migden and Jones to work with a nonprofit — the San Diego-based Children’s Advocacy Institute, in this instance — to target best practices. One of the best elements of the STEP program is its insistence on the active participation of emancipating foster youth. They’ll have the chance to “opt-out” in case they feel fed up with the idea of another program, and also “opt-in” later on, if they decide that life on their own isn’t so rosy. They’ll also help choose their own mentors. The only thing that would improve on this system would be the inclusion of former foster youth as advocates and role models — an idea that 22-year-old Laney Kermani, a participant in First Place Fund for Youth, an Oakland-based emancipation services nonprofit, enthusiastically endorses.
“Former transitional foster youth have to be part of this,” she said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”
STEP won’t be cheap. In its cost-benefit analysis of such a program, the Children’s Advocacy Institute showed that it will cost about $123 million annually after the first five years. But it’s certainly possible that the state can obtain at least some federal funds for the program, particularly in the form of housing vouchers, and a little creativity in the form of public-private partnerships would go a long way as well. Even if the state has to come up with the bulk of the money, however, it will still receive the bulk of the benefit.
STEP will save the state money after 12 years — even assuming that it only results in most former foster youth achieving the same levels of education, welfare usage and imprisonment as the rest of the population. In 23 years, once it works it way through an entire generation of foster youth, STEP will pay for all of its costs — even the start-up ones. When our legislators see that price tag, we urge them to keep in mind not only their unrivaled opportunity to help foster youth live happier, more productive lives, but also those benchmark years, 12 and 23. Though they will be termed out of office, they could, by approving the STEP program, leave a tremendous legacy for California.
An Editorial by the San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, January 28, 2007