Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Young people aging out of foster care in Kentucky deserve greater support

Advocates pushing for more help for foster children in Kentucky after they turn 18
Lexington Herald Leader,  November 12, 2011.

Lexington, Ky. — Evicted and struggling to save money to buy a car, 19-year-old Clairessa Johnson often feels hopeless.

Johnson and her infant daughter have been staying with a friend and she's saving what she can from a minimum-wage fast-food job in Lexington.

The former foster care child had sought help from a state provision that allows some teenagers to say in foster care until they turn 21. But she said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services has denied her request.

"It leaves me lost," Johnson told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

She would like to become one of about 556 foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 who have extended their stay in foster care. It would allow her to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other vital services.

Over a year period ending in June, 531 foster children turned 18 and left state custody. Advocates say many of them will have struggles similar to Johnson, who is taking classes with the hopes of becoming a nurse.

"They are forced to deal with society when they don't have the social skills or the independent living skills to be successful," said Earl Washington, a Lexington social worker who has been helping Johnson. "To think that these kids who were in the system for years — some since they were babies — are going to magically be successful when they are 18 is foolish."

Washington said he's helped Johnson apply for housing, but it might be months before she is in her own apartment.

Some of the teens leaving foster care have mental illnesses, learning disabilities, or alcohol and drug problems. Some, like Johnson, have children before they are 18. And those who go to college or a training program with the state's help don't always get the everyday support they need, advocates said.

"These youth aging out of foster care are some of the most vulnerable young people that we have," said Jerry Cantrell, CEO of Bellewood Homes for Children, which contracts with the state to operate foster care and independent living programs in Louisville and Lexington. "Without any support, 75 percent of them fail."

Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said state caseworkers begin working with teens around their 16th birthday to develop their independent living skills, such as money management, job preparation and basic home economics.

By the time the individuals are 171/2, caseworkers are required to outline a plan for their transition to independence, including whether they want to recommit to foster care.

In the 2012 General Assembly, some former foster children and leaders of private child caring agencies are going to push for improved laws and regulations for young adults in the program who are between 18 and 21.

One movement, called True Up, is trying to improve the situation for children aging out of foster care. True Up is getting help from former foster child Frank Harshaw, now the CEO of an energy services company.

"There are some issues" with the system in place to help Kentucky's foster children once they turn 18, said Harshaw. "But there are also some good programs. We have to help these kids use those programs to their benefit and society's benefit."

State Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, chairman of the House Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare, said he will hold a hearing this month on issues involving foster children who are turning 18.


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