New foster care regs getting closerAge limit for foster care to rise from 18 to 21
If only David Morrow had been born a decade later, his life in foster care and afterward might have turned out differently.
When Morrow was a year old, his mother left him and a 3- and 4-year-old brother and sister home alone while she went out.
“My understanding is that my mother was really heavily into drugs,” he said.
While she was gone, the house caught fire. The kids were all placed in foster care.
He spent most of his childhood in one foster home, until he was removed at age 16 following what he described as years of verbal abuse.
“They said I was stupid and I was dumb,” he said. “I was told that I was an orphan, nobody loved me, nobody cared about me, and it made me feel like what’s the point of living.”
Social Services looked for his mother to see if she had cleaned up her act. They found her in prison. So they placed Morrow with an aunt he had never met in the hopes of developing a lasting family relationship. It didn’t work out. “It was a shock, I was confused, I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t know them; they were like total strangers in my life, I wasn’t ready for that.”
He got into trouble and wound up in juvenile hall, and when he was released he was independent, with no money and alone. If only David Morrow had been born a decade later, he would have had more options.
Beginning January 1, 2012, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act (AB 12) takes effects, raising the age limit for foster care over three years from 18 to 21. During that time, kids in foster care will get financial assistance with housing – including college dorms, group homes, foster homes, shared housing and transitional housing – and have access to job skills and life skills classes, mental health counseling, advice on college or vocational education, and a host of other programs designed to help them become self-sufficient.
That’s why, despite his horrible experience in foster care, Morrow believes that had he been able to remain in the system until he was 21, he might have been better off.
“Former foster youth still have a lot of unmet emotional needs,” said Morrow. “Like me; I never was given a lot of emotional support. A lot of those old experiences that I had, they molded my character and my attitude. Even today I have to work to change that.”
Congress makes it possible
What happened to Morrow wasn’t at all unusual or unpredictable. As many as 30,000 foster youth age out of the system every year, 5,000 in California, and within the first two to four years half are unemployed, 40 percent are on public assistance, a quarter have been homeless, and 20 percent are in jail or prison. Rates for college are even more dismal; in California, only 20 percent enroll, and just 2-3 percent graduate.
AB 12 was made possible by another landmark bill, H.R. 6893, the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, signed by President Bush in October 2008. Among its provisions, H.R. 6893 opened a new funding stream for states that agreed to increase the age for foster care eligibility. California is one of 12 states, and District of Columbia, that enacted new legislation to extend foster care after age 18. Several other states didn’t need to change their laws, they just had to develop plans and submit them to the federal government for approval.
So while state officials estimate it will cost about $37 million to extend foster care, but they say that will be offset by $52 million in federal funds, for a net savings to the state of $15 million.
“This is truly a historic piece of legislation,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California (CWDA). “What we want to make sure is that extending foster care beyond age 18 is meaningful for the youth who participate – enabling them to develop long-lasting relationships with caring adults and attend school or training programs to help them succeed in the future. It’s not just about handing them a check each month.”
A technical process
Under the federal law, foster youth must meet at least one of five conditions to remain in care until 21.
- completing secondary education or an equivalent credential,
- being enrolled in an institution that provides post-secondary or vocational education,
- participating in a program to promote or remove barriers to employment,
- being employed for at least 80 hours per month, or
- incapable of doing these activities due to a medical condition.
These conditions may seem specific and straightforward, but they’re not. A lot of the requirements are open to interpretation. “It gets very technical,” said Debbie Raucher with the John Burton Foundation, which is coordinating the implementation process for higher education.
So since last summer, county social services, community groups, and foster care advocacy groups have been holding stakeholder meetings throughout the state to get input from everyone involved. The last one took place in July. All that information has been sent to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), which will start releasing the regulations on October 1st.
Raucher describes the process as an “unprecedented collaboration between community activists and CDSS to make the program as effective as possible and get it right the first time.”
Foster youth take a lead role
In a significant break from past discussions surrounding foster care regulations, current and former foster youth have been very involved in developing the new guidelines, starting with the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth in Congress, which included current and former foster youth at every meeting.
California has followed that lead. Ashley McCullough, a Youth Advocate Fellow at the Westcoast Children’s Clinic, sits on Alameda County’s AB 12 implementation group.
The Stanford University graduate had to use her scholarships and financial aid to pay for her dorm room. If there had been an AB 12, foster care would have paid for her housing and she wouldn’t have had to scramble to find a place to live during the summer.
Yet McCullough still expects it will be a hard sell to encourage other foster youth to remain in the system. “Once people are 18 they’re not going to want to stay in foster care because they’ve had the system disrupt their lives long enough,” she said.
So the Alameda County group is going to roll out a marketing campaign directed at 17-year-olds and their child care workers. “To me, it’s about preventing homelessness. Foster care doesn’t do a good job of providing families for young people,” said McCullough. “You can’t take advantage of all the other opportunities if you don’t have a stable place to live.”
It may be too late for David Morrow to take advantage of the new law, but he has put his life back on track. Morrow is enrolled in community college and said he hopes to transfer to a four-year college, earn a double major in social work and business, and open a transitional housing program for former foster youth.