How the System Fails Youth, Part 1: Aging Out of Foster Care

Every day this week, we will provide a in-depth look into the needs of youth in foster care.

Teens heading out on their own for the first time are bound to make a few blunders along the way, like spending money on something frivolous or prioritizing fun over study time.  Most young people have someone older and wiser standing by, coaching them on how to avoid these predicaments in the future.   And most have families to help soften the consequences of common mistakes.  However, for those without permanent ties to a stable and reliable family, making mistakes may mean the difference between sleeping in a bed and sleeping on the street, eating dinner and going hungry, or finding a ride to work and getting fired.  Youth who age out of foster care without finding a permanent family are disproportionately at-risk for similarly dangerous scenarios.

When youth in Nebraska’s foster care system reach the age of 19, they lose much of the support previously put into place by DHHS.  Sometimes they have a plan for next steps; frequently, they do not.  In extreme cases, youth are picked up from their foster or group home on their 19th birthday and dropped off at a local homeless shelter.  This is a heartbreaking injustice to Nebraska’s youth.  As their legal guardian, the State has a responsibility to support youth who age out of the foster care system.

Although Nebraska’s Former Ward program offers one method of support by providing youth with Medicaid coverage and funding for postsecondary education until age 21, eligibility requirements serve as a significant barrier.  For example, the program excludes youth who are not college-bound, youth who do not apply for the program prior to aging out, and youth who have achieved permanency (e.g. through a guardianship, adoption, or reunification) – even if this occurs only months before the youth turns 19.  Of those who met age requirements (i.e. under 21) and were in out-of-home care when they discharged from the system, only 23% received services in 2010. [1. The Nebraska Foster Care Review Board (2010). 2010 Annual Report], [2. Communication with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Protection and Safety Division]  The remaining 77% were on their own.

Offering extended foster care services for youth who age out of care would fill in many of the gaps that currently exist in the Former Ward program and reach some of these excluded populations.  The upcoming interim study, LR 537, will go a long way in clarifying the extent of the problem and illustrating exactly why something must be done.

In the coming days, this blog will feature, with permission, the experiences of four young adults who aged out of foster care.  These youth testified at the hearing for LB 1150 on February 2nd and shared their perspectives on the need for additional support and resources for this population.  From their stories, it is clear that Nebraska must make a commitment to doing a better job of guiding 19-year-olds through what may be the most important transition of their lives.

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