A group of child-welfare advocates is launching a campaign to get Ohio to join the growing number of states that extend foster care to age 21.
Between 1,000 and 1,300 Ohio foster youths age out of the system each year when they turn 18, and too many exit to a bleak landscape with scant resources and support, said Mark Mecum, executive director of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies.
Homelessness, crime and early parenthood are common experiences. Success in college and on the job is often elusive.
“Investing in this population by extending supports brings forth all sorts of benefits to society,” Mecum said. “Those benefits far outweigh the costs.”
He said that 25 states plus the District of Columbia have programs to stretch foster care to age 21 for youths who want to keep services as they work toward independence.
“All the states that are as big as Ohio already have done this,” Mecum said.
The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 allows states to use federal foster-care money for eligible youths up to age 21, rather than 18.
State and local governments, however, still pay a share of the cost.
And in Ohio, with a county-based system of 88 public child-welfare agencies, budgets vary widely. Some county agencies, such as Franklin’s, are resource-rich and receive money from property-tax levies. Others, especially in rural areas, are pressed.
Mecum said the Ohio Fostering Connections task force plans to ask the state — and not the individual counties — to pay the local tab for foster youths who remain in care after age 18.
“Part of our research will be showing the cost benefit to doing this in Ohio,” he said.
Mecum said the group, which is meeting later this month, is contracting with an Ohio State University professor to develop a cost estimate.
Chip Spinning, executive director of Franklin County Children Services, said the agency is interested in the idea. “We realize that many of our kids in our system, and even in the general population, are not ready to make it on their own in the adult world at that age,” he said.
But extending the age limit won’t be as beneficial as advocates hope unless the extra years of care are designed to prepare the youths for independence, said Crystal Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
Without program improvements, some experts agree, foster-care extensions may only delay homelessness instead of prevent it.
“Just doing more of the same isn’t sufficient,” said Amy Dworsky, a senior researcher at Chapin Hall, a child and family research center at the University of Chicago. “You need to provide them with the kind of housing options and experiences that are going to help them.”
Dworsky said extended foster care already is making a difference in high-school and post-secondary education. She thinks that re-entry provisions also are important, so that foster teens who decide not to continue care after turning 18 have a chance to change their minds.
In states where care extends to age 21, most foster teens opt to stay. “I think the youth know a good thing when they see it,” Dworsky said.
Mecum said the task force wants to make clear the struggle that many foster youths face. “These kids are more likely to be homeless than other kids, and new information from the state of Ohio shows that they’re also likely to be targets of human trafficking,” he said.
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