Thousands of kids in the foster care system founder as they reach adulthood. But there’s movement in the General Assembly to make their lives better.
By Rose Hoban
Many kids who enter the foster care system end up having difficult lives: They’re often moved from place to place, others are homeless, many never find permanent homes.
Then, when they turn 18 year old and “age out” of the system, most report being unprepared for the responsibilities of adult life. And the stats are grim: Research shows former foster kids are more likely to not graduate from high school, go to prison, get pregnant and be homeless.
Last year, lawmakers changed the age for kids in North Carolina to age out of the system from 18 to 21. And they allocated extra funds to help current foster kids find the permanent homes most of them crave.
Now lawmakers are looking to see what more they can do to help North Carolina’s growing number of foster and homeless kids.
The Committee on Homeless Youth, Foster Care and Dependency, led by Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), has been looking throughout the legislative interim at issues for foster care kids , and will continue after the General Assembly finishes its short session this summer.
According to Deborah Landry from the legislative Fiscal Research Division, there are 10,282 North Carolina children in foster care; between 500 and 700 kids age out of the system annually.
Recently, money to support kids in foster care and to support adoption have increased, partly because there are more kids, but also because lawmakers are starting to recognize that attention paid during childhood saves dollars later on.
About 15,200 families are receiving adoption assistance after taking in a child, either through direct payments, health care coverage or other supports. With foster care now extending through the age of 21, more children will stay in the system longer, costing more dollars. But there will be savings too.
“California is a nice anecdotal example,” said Barringer. “A number of years ago, their prison population was exploding, and they couldn’t figure out why. And when they looked into it, they realized their prisons were being filled by aged-out foster children.
“They reformed their foster care system to have it extend it to age 21,” she said. “We’re hoping for some of the same positive outcomes here.”
Barringer, a foster parent for a decade, has been pushing foster care issues for the past two legislative sessions and was instrumental in getting the increased age through the legislature. Legislators voted to add funding to cover the higher caseload of foster children by an additional $5 million in 2014, and programs will receive $4.5 million this year and $7.5 million next year.
“Foster care gets looked at every year in the budget,” Landry said. She noted that in recent years when money was tight, some funds were trimmed.
“Every year, the Department of Social Services determines how many kids they think will be in foster care and puts forth a request to the governor’s budget,” she said. “Then the legislature considers that, as it is an entitlement program.”
“In North Carolina, during the school year of 2014-15, we identified 26,636 children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade as being homeless in North Carolina public schools,” reported Lisa Phillips, homeless liaison for the Department of Public Instruction.
“This year, we’re expecting 27,000. Our numbers keep going up,” she said.
Phillips said that kindergartners and first-graders are the largest group of homeless children. Many live with parents in shelters or the apartments of relatives, or on the couches of their parents’ friends.
“In the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade years, only 25 percent [of the total] are children that are homeless in our count,” she said. “That number has dropped, because where are those kids going? They’re out on the streets. They’re trying to survive. School is not a priority anymore.”
Accounts of “unaccompanied” youth were reinforced by the testimony of Michael Absher, a 26-year-old Henderson County man who in 2009 was homeless as a high school senior.
“My family was messed up,” he said. “It was not your typical nice, wonderful family. My mom was mentally handicapped, my dad was abusive, and my grandparents started stepping in. Then my grandmother passed away from cancer.”
Absher choked up. The room fell silent.
Eventually, the homeless liaison at the school district was able to find him a place to stay.
Since then, Absher has started a program, Only Hope WNC, which provides services to homeless youth and is on the verge of opening a shelter.
He was able to rattle off statistics about homelessness in his part of the state: In Buncombe County, 468 homeless kids, 91 unaccompanied; in Transylvania County, 202 homeless kids, 37 unaccompanied; in Henderson County, 319 homeless kids, 89 unaccompanied.
“Most of the kids I’ve dealt with, even when I was a kid, you mention the word DSS, they will run,” he said.
Absher said they’re not sleeping in the streets, but are couch surfing or sleeping in their cars. He told stories of kids sneaking onto school buses or into Boys and Girls Club vans to sleep.
“Or you can be like me and go to the school principal and say, ‘Can I put a box outside your window? Because I feel safe there,’” he said.
“Kids who are homeless have much higher rates of illness than children who are simply poor,” said Theresa Flynn, a pediatrician who works with Wake County Human Services. “Being homeless and poor is worse. These children are more than twice as likely to have health problems, three times as likely to have severe health problems.”
But there are programs that are helping kids transition from foster care into adulthood, said Karen McLeod, CEO of Benchmarks, a child and family advocacy organization.
“Education, natural supports, health care – and when we say health care, we mean both physical and behavioral health, as well as housing and employment,” McLeod said. “In order to not be homeless, those are all components that have to be addressed.”
McLeod said there are not enough of these kinds of services. And she said that while it might be expensive to provide them, prevention is cheaper than the long-term social costs of treating adults who never got support as children.
Barringer said the upcoming legislative session is too little time to address many of these issues, but that she has authorization to continue the committee process through the interim between this year’s legislative session and the long session, which begins in January 2017.
Some in the meeting said they felt confident Barringer would continue to work to get more done to help foster youth in the coming year.
“Her knowledge and understanding of the issue is apparent and her passion for trying to help youth in so many varied and complicated problems came through at the hearing,” said Kris Parks, a lobbyist for Disability Rights North Carolina.
“She understands enough to know that they need a comprehensive plan to tackle this stuff.”