Children who reach adulthood in the foster care system are expected to function in a society that is complex and intimidating. Many of them are ill-equipped to navigate it. In Summit and seven other Ohio counties, a new pilot program promises crucial help to improve their odds of making it as independent, productive adults.
About 12,000 children are in foster care in Ohio in any given month. Some are reunified with parents or relatives eventually, and some are adopted. But many others reach age 18 without finding a permanent family. According to a report in December by the state attorney general’s office, 1,320 Ohio children “aged out” of foster care in fiscal year 2010. The number grew to 1,525 children in 2012 as adoptions declined. Ohio, the report noted, has a greater percentage of foster children aging out of the system than the national average.
It is difficult enough to make the transition from adolescence to responsible adulthood. The statistics show it is a harder trick for teenagers who are forced to find their bearings in society without the stability, love and guidance of a permanent family or trusted adults. About a quarter of foster children who age out lack a high school diploma. Fewer than 2 percent complete college. They face a high risk of poverty and homelessness. Nearly 30 percent end up behind bars at some point. Almost half the girls are pregnant by age 19.
For child-welfare and social agencies, the challenge always has been how to ease the transition for young people who have few or no reliable sources of support and guidance. The state Department of Job and Family Services, working with the counties and Big Brothers Big Sisters, is putting up nearly $6 million for the pilot program, Connecting the Dots From Foster Care to Employment and Independent Living. The three-year pilot aims to develop best practices to help former foster kids with critical transitional skills: getting an education, working at a job, handling money, work and relationships, steering clear of legal trouble. It should prove an invaluable segment of the bridge to independent adulthood.