Foster care bill would double funds for assistance programs

Proposal aims to ease transition to adulthood after children turn 18

May 14, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seventeen-year-old Montrey Bowie of Frederick is poised to receive his high school equivalency degree in a few months, and he has an entry-level job lined up with a carpenters' union.

But upon his 18th birthday at the end of the summer, federal law requires him to leave the foster care system and strike out on his own, with almost no money in hand.

"I don't want to live a fancy life," said Montrey, who noted he had been taken from his neglectful mother's home at an early age and briefly turned to dealing drugs after running away from indifferent foster parents. "I just want to be treated fairly."

A bill proposed yesterday by Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, and Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, seeks to ease that transition into adulthood by doubling the money the government provides for independent living centers and other programs that attend to foster children after they turn 18.

"It's scandalous that we're telling children, `You're on your own,' " said Johnson, chairwoman of a House subcommittee on human resources. "We're hoping, through this legislation, to get states to focus, to give them more resources."

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to review the legislation this month, and its prospects appear good in the full House. Aides to the two lawmakers say they are also hopeful that the bill can attract support in the Senate.

At a hearing on the bill yesterday, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay -- the foster father of two teen-agers -- testified in favor of the legislation and promised to work hard for its success.

Ill-equipped for survival

"Too many adolescents leave their foster homes unable to meet their most basic needs for survival," DeLay said. "The current system leaves children who exit the foster care system without the skills and the tools they need to live independently."

President Clinton issued a statement yesterday applauding the legislation, which resembles a provision in his own budget plan, though the president has proposed a somewhat smaller increase in the foster care program.

Each year, between 20,000 and 25,000 foster care wards in this country turn 18. Under current law, the federal housing subsidies given to their foster parents or guardians are cut off at that point, and the youths often lose their eligibility for Medicaid. Studies show that such "graduates" of the foster care system are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, remain unemployed, suffer from psychological distress and become homeless.

This year, Cardin had proposed continuing the housing subsidies to foster parents until their wards turn 21.

The new bill, a bipartisan compromise, would instead set aside $140 million each year for private independent living centers to aid the transition of young adults to independence -- such as the highly structured residential center where Bowie lives.

It would mean about $2 million more each year to Maryland above the $1.2 million in federal money that the state now receives for the community homes.

The $140 million in the Johnson-Cardin bill could be used for housing, vocational training, educational courses or therapeutic counseling. In addition, the bill offers roughly $36 million a year in incentives for states to extend Medicaid coverage to 18-to-21-year-old former foster care children.

And it would set aside $7 million a year to allow foster care children to save more money; they now lose their eligibility for foster care if they have more than $1,000 in assets.

All told, House aides said, the bill would cost about $565 million over five years. Some of that cost would be offset by proposed cuts in wasteful or fraudulent claims in the Supplemental Security Income program for the disabled.

Although he may be given an old car to drive to construction sites in his new job, Montrey told Johnson's subcommittee, it would be hard to find money for a deposit for a telephone or a new apartment.

He credited his outlook to Our House, a private home for teen-age boys in Ellicott City that trained him in carpentry and provides therapeutic services and counseling about living independently.

Need for `a jump-start'

"Kids who have no parents to help them or to give them guidance need a jump-start on life to make them successful and tax-paying citizens," Montrey said. "I am still going to need an adult to talk to who cares about me. I am still going to need an adult who I can trust to help me make decisions. I might even need some counseling, before I go out on my own."

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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