Fostering adults

November 19, 2005

Courtney had been homeless since she was 16. Justin has had more than six homes - foster homes - in the past two years. They can't boomerang home for a month or two whenever they need to, call mom for advice or get a line on a job from the good neighbor next door. Neither is ready to make it alone, but both are "aging out," passing the age at which their state, Washington, deems them adult and losing access to support systems and guidance.

Courtney and Justin live in Seattle, but their problems are shared by young people nationwide. A recent Sun special report, "On Their Own," followed a year in the lives of Iven Bailey and Gary Sells, homeless 18-year-olds struggling to graduate from Lake Clifton-Eastern High. Iven and Gary succeeded in this first step toward adulthood and autonomy, but their paths now are still far from certain.

Officials estimate that there are hundreds of such children in Baltimore, and tens of thousands in the nation. That's as specific as they can be with the numbers. These young people, on the cusp of legal adulthood, are willfully elusive and often ashamed of their predicament. Those who haven't "aged out" may with good reason be afraid that something worse will happen to them if they ask for state assistance. States only recently have started to try to track them down.

A federally funded workgroup across 20 states (Maryland is not among them) is trying to figure out how best to help people with disabilities get and keep good jobs. But project members discovered that the work part was not the most pressing problem and that children's disabilities weren't their only stumbling block - it's nearly impossible to hold a job when one has no home, no family and no stable community. They expanded their study to include all foster-care children, as well as non-fostered disabled children.

Of the more than 500,000 children nationwide in foster care, 30 percent to 40 percent are also in special education, and 20 percent to 60 percent have developmental or mental disabilities. About 20,000 youngsters age out of the system each year. After they leave state care, one-quarter of them end up homeless.

There is no system to help any of these young adults, workgroup member Paul DiLorenzo told a conference in Baltimore last week of social-work and municipal leaders. That's unacceptable, and a measure of the failings of the America's child welfare system.

There are a number of great programs here and there. But nowhere is there a coherent, across-state-agencies plan - and none comes close to helping the number of people who need it. In Baltimore, the Urban Youth Corps, UPS School-to-Career Partnership and other such programs train a couple of dozen people each year. City and state advocates are discussing building a dormitory-style center for homeless older teenagers in Baltimore and creating a public boarding school for younger teens. That would be a good start; the conversation should continue.

The national workgroup has drafted a guide for communities, describing the characteristics successful programs - those with proven success - seem to share. One is flexibility; a young adult may need help with housing this month and be fine for a year, then a few months later need help setting up savings or getting a driver's license. The opportunity to "drop in" for assistance can be difficult for the provider but better serves this population, many of whom do not learn on a bureaucratic schedule.

Another essential trait, one that very few programs have achieved, is stability. Many are supported by grants that pay for a few years of work, but others risk losing state and federal funding every year. Participating in a program that's always on the brink reinforces this fragile population's sense of insecurity.

Knitting these young adults back into their communities, through solid work, decent housing and the skills to be good neighbors, would cut the rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and welfare dependency among them, according to the collaborative. It also would be a hand up, not a hand out, for adults who likely did not have that advantage in childhood.

- Nicky Penttila

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