After seven years in foster care, Cierra Bishop was eager to move on to the next chapter of her life.
She was 18 and decided to drop out of school. She says she was running with “a party crowd.”
Because she was not in school, she was breaking Summit County Children Services rules and was booted out of foster care.
“When I left foster care, it was mostly on impulse. It wasn’t really a thought-out plan to leave. At 18, I thought I was going to have it all together, but I had no idea,” Bishop, now 20, said in an interview last week.
Bishop finally landed a job and moved in with a friend.
“I was homeless for a while. I was lucky I didn’t get into too much trouble with the crowd I was hanging out with,” she said, “because I was in situations where I possibly could have gotten into a lot of trouble.”
Bishop admits to experimenting with marijuana and alcohol.
“Honestly, if I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed in foster care a little longer, at least until I finished high school.”
A local state representative has proposed a bill that could help more young adults like Bishop.
Zack Milkovich, D-Akron, has introduced legislation that would extend the foster care age from 18 to 21. He said he wants the state to be able to offer a better support system for foster youths by keeping them in the program longer and giving them a “better chance of success in life.”
Milkovich said the average number of youths who leave Ohio foster care at age 18 is between 1,000 and 1,300 a year.
“These young men and women are the most at risk, some end up homeless, incarcerated or face teenage pregnancy. The statistics aren’t good. It’s just a downward spiral,” he said. “At age 18, you’re considered an adult, but they’re just transitioning out of childhood. Some still lack maturity, and to make a major life decision at that age is tough.
“It’s tough enough when you have parental support, let alone when you’re out there on your own.”
Bishop said staying in foster care longer definitely would have helped her — as well as many of the foster kids she grew up with — make a better transition into adulthood.
“A lot of people who aged out of foster care with me are way worse off than I can even imagine. It’s really sad to see them now,” she said. “Some live in shelters, or go from boyfriend to boyfriend or are staying with whomever they can.
“Some have kids or go back with biological parents, and when you ask them what they are doing, they say, ‘Nothing.’ Few live functional lives.”
Milkovich has been traveling to various children’s agencies around Ohio “to gather input and craft a bill that is best for the state.”
The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon.
Sharon Geffken, deputy director of social services for Summit County Children Services, said Summit averages about 43 young adults each year who opt out of the system when they turn 18. In Stark County, the number is about 30.
“The reality is that most kids simply aren’t ready at age 18” to be on their own, Geffken said. “It’s very difficult to find housing and employment with a living wage and all of the support, especially when it’s been provided to them by our agency, but legally we can’t keep them.”
She welcomes Milkovich’s proposal.
Bishop, who grew up in Alliance, said she had a false sense of security when she left foster care.
“I never had to go to a homeless shelter, so I wasn’t institutionally homeless,” she said. “But I was homeless because I didn’t have a place to call my home.”
When she moved from foster care, she had only three months left until finishing high school.
“I never really liked school, so I left and there was no one to really tell me what to do anymore,” Bishop said. “The people I was with were out of school and mostly just partying and hanging out all the time, so I fell into that. At that point, I had a job, so I was like, ‘Forget it, I work, so I don’t even need a diploma.’ ”
When reality — and hunger — quickly set in, she went back to her case manager in Stark County for support.
“We took a lot of life-skill classes in foster care, but at the time I wasn’t really interested in learning how to cook or budget or shop,” Bishop said. “I think the biggest problem with those classes are that kids don’t really want the help at that point and they don’t realize how serious and helpful the classes really are.”
Bishop’s wake-up call came when one of her close friends, who was also in foster care and lived with her and her foster mother for three years, was killed.
“My friend also opted out of foster care when she turned 18. She never finished high school and went on to have a baby. She was murdered by her boyfriend at a party. She was living a worse life than me, in the streets mostly, living in shelters or with boyfriends,” Bishop said.
“It was an eye-opener, I wanted better, and decided I didn’t want to live this type of life anymore — drinking and doing drugs. Out of desperation, or realization, I walked into my old principal’s office and talked to him about getting a degree.”
He helped her enroll in online classes to earn a diploma.
Bishop now attends Stark State College, just got her own apartment and has a “cool car.” She just got laid off from her job, however, and hopes she will find another job soon.
She also serves as a mentor to other young ladies in foster care.
When young adults leave foster care, they are encouraged to stay in contact with their case managers for one-on-one help with finding an apartment or filling out forms for college.
“Over the last decade, the state has created foster youth boards, and a lot of our youth from Stark County have gone on to serve in leadership roles and have gone to Columbus to advocate for foster youth,” said Bill Burgess of Stark County’s Department of Job and Family Services. “It’s a population that nationwide can be challenging, especially with being homeless, but we are doing the best we can to help these kids out. If we can get them in the military or in college they are guaranteed a roof over their head.”
Nationally, 25 states and the District of Columbia already have extended foster programs or have measures pending.
Milkovich also wants to give young adults who leave foster care the opportunity to re-enter the system if they need additional support.
“When a cold slap of reality hits those young men and women who want to be out there on their own and all of a sudden they find out they can’t make it, I’d like for them to be able to come back into the system until they are better situated,” Milkovich said. “This legislation will give more opportunities for success by providing a safety net.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.