The faces are beautiful. The numbers are ugly. When kids "age out" of foster care at eighteen, 20 percent wind up homeless. In California, the figure is 65 percent - in the first year. 33 percent nationwide (56 percent in California) don't graduate high school. Only one to five percent go to college. And nearly half the young women who've been in foster care are pregnant - sometimes more than once - by age 19.
I've been doing this job long enough to see some of my former child clients come back as parents. With no parenting skills and no one to help them, they often repeat the familiar cycle of abuse and neglect.
And it's about to get worse.
California has a program called THP-Plus, which helps teens in foster care with the basics: how to fill out a job application, rent an apartment, get a driver's license. The things that most of us learned from our parents. Services can continue for the first few years after the kids become adults.
Here in the Bay Area, Alameda County has a THP-Plus funded program called First Place for Youth that's been a great success, and is being copied in other counties. Participants are one-third as likely as other other foster youth to be arrested or end up pregnant. 77 percent find steady employment, and 86 percent go on to stable housing. 70 percent graduate, and 52 percent (that's not a typo: fifty-two percent) go on to college.
Now the San Jose Mercury News reports that they're facing massive cuts on top of the painful ones last year:
Last May, $80 million in cuts resulted in 400 social workers being laid off, the elimination of stipends for transitioning youths, reduced the number of foster youths able to attend college and forced 1,400 THP-Plus participants and 200 of their children onto the streets....
In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010-11. Among his budget proposals was the complete elimination of THP-Plus funding, if the state is unable to secure an additional $6.9 billion in federal funding.
Even from a purely financial standpoint, this is madness. 70 percent of inmates at San Quentin have been in foster care. It's a lot cheaper to provide some proactive help for foster kids than to pay for incarceration, welfare, substance abuse treatment, and another generation of kids in foster care.
But the cost is far higher than the financial. I know these kids: I've seen their hurt and anger as they get shuffled from one home to the next. They've had everything taken from them: their parents, often their siblings, their sense of belonging, even such small things as a childhood photo of themselves.
In the past few years, my agency's gotten better about thinking long-term for older kids in the system. We've gotten more aggressive about looking for adoptive homes, even for teens. We're putting more effort into reconnecting with extended family members and other people who are important in a kid's life: a family friend, a favorite teacher, a pastor. But it's not enough.
When the state takes the drastic step of removing children from their families, the state effectively becomes the parent. A responsible parent doesn't dump a child on the street at 18 and say good luck.