Alone and adrift

September 22, 2006

Every year, thousands of teenagers "age out" of the foster care system and go off on their own, unprepared for independent living and without strong family support systems. Some manage to go to college, get jobs and live full lives. Many more end up homeless or unemployed, on welfare, in jail or in mental institutions.

State and federal policies have unintentionally perpetuated these troubling trends. For example, the federal government rewards states that increase annual adoption rates with extra funding but does not offer incentives for reuniting foster children with their families - the preferred goal, when possible - or moving them out of crowded group homes to live with individual guardians.

These and other policies increase the likelihood of children staying longer in foster care and entering adulthood "alone and adrift," as one expert said. Nationally, 20,000 to 25,000 young adults, ages 18 through 21, leave foster care annually. In Maryland 10,958 children, almost half of them teenagers, are in foster care and could face potentially bleak futures.

Fortunately, some of the aspects of this problem are now being addressed. Child welfare administrators, including those in Maryland, are increasingly focusing on "family permanence" for older foster children and altering their programs and policies to reflect this. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has launched a national campaign to promote adoption of older foster children. Just last week, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation gathered child welfare experts, state administrators and service agency providers from around the country to discuss these challenges and hear from former and current foster children.

Some states, including Maryland, now provide financial and social service support to foster children who are adopted, in hopes of encouraging more such adoptions.

These are welcome moves. But more could be done. Maryland welfare officials have started providing those exiting the system with help paying for housing and job training, a move we strongly support. Child welfare agencies should also work more closely with community-based intervention programs that work with troubled families to address the myriad problems that lead to children being removed from their homes in the first place.

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