Extending the social net for foster children

Federal law eases transition of youths to independent lives

January 01, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Damon Davis is a man. Yet in many ways, he is still a foster child.

He wears a suit and speaks of plans for a career as a psychiatrist. At 18, he is old enough to vote. But he's in high school, still living with Ivy and Duwade Moses, the Northeast Baltimore foster parents he credits for bringing him back from the abyss of drug and alcohol addiction.

Move into his own place? He's not ready.

"I don't have a lot of experience in the real world," Davis says. "There's still some things I don't know about life."

In Maryland, hundreds of youths in the foster care system straddle this twilight zone between the ages of 18 and 21 -- legally aging out of the system, yet emotionally unequipped to navigate high school or college, work and independence without the support of family.

For years, Maryland has been one of only a handful of states to help this group, from offering aid with college tuition to placing teens in apartments to teaching them how to get and keep a job.

But, in other states, young people like Davis have been left to their own devices, kicked out of the system at age 18. Many have failed to finish high school. A recent study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 27 percent of the nation's homeless once lived in foster care.

The Foster Care Independence Act, co-sponsored by U. S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland's 3rd District and signed into law by President Clinton two weeks ago, is designed to change that situation, doubling the amount of money available to states to help older foster children learn to live on their own.

That means about $2 million more a year for Maryland's program -- an amount more than double current federal funding for the program. The state soon will begin to offer rent subsidies and other support to 18-year-olds who strike out on their own, said Patrick Patrong, independent living coordinator for the state Department of Human Resources.

A pilot computer training course that gave 15 of the older foster youths a computer at the end, is to be expanded into a weekend camp for about 45 students that also will offer Microsoft certification.

More youths can attend job-training programs, such as a project the state has developed with United Parcel Service. And foster parents of older teen-agers will get additional training on how best to deal with young people who are testing their wings.

"We're excited about it," said Patrong. "The law gives us so much more flexibility to do things."

Foster parents of older teens welcome the law, too. Ask Vernetta Ramsey of Upper Marlboro, whose 20-year-old foster son Davon Gibson lives in her home while working and going to college.

"I didn't think they stayed so long," she said, laughing. "He has been from home to home, and [now] he seems to enjoy being a part of the family."

The Maryland program offers more than financial help. The foster teen-agers have conferences and events where they can develop a web of friends. Wednesday night, several hundred from Baltimore dressed up, feasted on fried chicken and sang karaoke at The Forum in Northwest Baltimore to celebrate the holidays, along with their social workers.

Even with the support, there are still lonely times. Ieesha McGirt, 19, spent last Thanksgiving by herself in the apartment she shares with a roommate from the program. "I had me a hamburger, some french fries. I looked at TV," she said. "You get used to being by yourself."

McGirt, a foster child since age 8, estimates she has lived in as many as 30 foster homes.

Now she would really like to find her own place -- but keep the financial aid she gets from the Baltimore City Department of Social Services for hairdressing school, and get some help with rent to supplement what she contributes from earnings at a Popeye's restaurant. The newly expanded program should allow her to do that.

"I'm ready to go independent," she said.

So does David Goodman, who celebrated his 18th birthday at the holiday party. Next week, he is to move from his foster parents' home in Northeast Baltimore to an apartment complex.

He recently quit his job as a security guard to concentrate on developing a business to provide long-distance telephone service, and he's a student at Baltimore City Community College. But he plans to remain part of his foster family.

"They said to me, `If you need anything decorated, let us know.' "

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