Abandonment at age 18 causes huge problems, group says
by Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Sacramento — The state of California neglects foster care children once they turn 18, turning them out onto the street with nowhere to live, no way to support themselves and nobody to turn to for support, according to a new report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute.
The institute, run out of the University of San Diego School of Law, on Tuesday called upon the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to support new legislation providing substantial financial support for foster youth once they “age out” of the system at 18 and ensure they have an adult guardian to provide guidance.
“These are not other people’s children. These are legally our children,” said Robert Fellmeth, director of the institute. “How you treat them is a measure of your devotion to family values.”
Youth nationwide who live with their parents typically don’t become self-sufficient until age 26 — and their parents on average contribute $44,000 after they turn 18 in rent, utilities, food, medical care, college tuition, transportation and other necessities to help them get there, according to the report.
For foster youth, it’s an entirely different story. Every year, 4,000 of them age out of California’s foster care system. Many get Medi-Cal health coverage. Some get help with rent and college tuition. But, according to the authors of the report, state assistance comes piecemeal and adds up to 12 percent of the average $44,000 other youth get from their parents after turning 18.
The consequences are dire, the report authors said. Sixty-five percent leave foster care with nowhere to live, and 51 percent are unemployed. Far more will wind up in prison than in college — 20 percent to 3 percent by comparison. Girls who age out of the system are four times more likely than the general population to receive public assistance.
Forty percent of people living in California’s homeless shelters are former foster children.
This bleak picture isn’t anything new, and numerous governmental and university studies have shown similar statistics, according to Denis Udall, a senior program officer at the Walter S. Johnson Foundation who specializes in foster care.
“It’s really commonly accepted throughout the country that this is an extremely at-risk, vulnerable population,” he said.
The Children’s Advocacy Institute on Tuesday proposed remedying the situation with “The Transition Guardian Plan,” which the report authors said is the first of its kind in the nation. State Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, have pledged to sponsor the proposal in the coming weeks in hopes of securing the money in the 2007-08 budget.
Under the proposal, a court-appointed guardian would be appointed for every foster youth sometime between their 16th and 18th birthdays. This person could be the foster parent, another relative, an attorney, a social worker or somebody else the teenager has come to know well.
The guardian would be paid $100 monthly by the state to oversee the youth once they turn 18. The state would send a stipend for the youth to the guardian, who would be in charge of distributing funds and guiding the youth in how to manage the money. The stipend would vary according to need, but would typically range from $850 monthly right after the youth turns 18 to $258 monthly during the fifth year of participation.
The total allotted to the typical youth would be $47,000 over five years, after which the goal would be for the youth to be self-sufficient.
The total annual cost to the state for the new program would be $123 million after five years.
Proponents said that for every dollar the state spends on the program, $2 would be saved in the long run in prison costs, public assistance costs and the higher income taxes that self-sufficient former foster youth would eventually contribute.
Foster care has become a major issue in Sacramento, in part due to a series of Chronicle editorials highlighting problems within the state system. Schwarzenegger signed a raft of bills last year aimed at improving the lot of foster youth, including protecting them from identify theft, making it easier to find their biological siblings and providing more funds for rental assistance.
But according to Fellmeth, these measures have been “very small, tiny baby steps” that haven’t tackled core problems. “I don’t care if you’re on crutches or not — you’ve got to walk the walk,” he said, taking a jab at the hobbled governor who recently broke a leg while skiing.
Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said Tuesday that the governor has taken significant steps to improve the foster care system. She said she didn’t know enough about the new plan to say whether he would sign it into law if it passes the Legislature.
“He’s been working consistently since taking office to protect the children entrusted to the state’s care,” she said. “It’s something he has worked on and something he continues to work on.”
Fellmeth and the other report authors were joined in Sacramento Tuesday by four former foster youth.
One of them, Nancy O’Reilly, 26, lived a chaotic life with her sisters and mother until her mother abandoned them when Nancy was 13. When she hit the end of her senior year of high school, her friends reveled in their senior trips and graduation while she was privately “scared to death” of being out on her own.
“I was completely in survival mode,” she said, noting she worked part-time and went to college, but eventually dropped out. But her story has a happy ending. She was adopted at age 24 by a former social worker and is now attending Cal State Stanislaus.
Her sisters weren’t so fortunate. O’Reilly said they have resorted to working as strippers and have been arrested, homeless, on drugs, on welfare and in abusive relationships.
“Some people say it’s the choices they made, but when you have no choices, you do what you have to do in order to survive,” she said. “Today, I want to beg the state to stop abandoning my foster brothers and sisters.”