Long Odds and Few Options for Nebraska Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

Reba Payne will age out of Nebraska foster care when she turns 18 in 12 months–she will be in the first semester of her senior year in high school. Nineteen-year-old John Thompson exited Nebraska foster care a month ago after about six years in the system. Both of them face the same uncertain future awaiting youth exiting foster care–a problem that some of the state’s politicians and child welfare advocates are trying to fix. JoAnne Young of the Lincoln Journal Star has more:

In 2011, 208 youths aged out of state care, and 113 were discharged to independent living at ages 16, 17 or 18, according to a Nebraska Appleseed report. Fifty-seven percent of them immediately lost Medicaid coverage.

Only 35 percent received services from the Former Ward program, intended to serve youths who are going on to college until they are 21. The report showed that from 2007 to 2010, an average of 27 young people each year received the fairly restrictive Former Ward services for the full two years.

“Although over half of youth who exited care without achieving permanency applied for the program, an average of 215 youth each year were left without the important financial support offered by (the) Former Ward (program),” the report said.

Lincoln Senator Amanda McGill introduced a bill that would have extended foster care services to youth past the age of 18, but it has not passed into law. However, she says that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is working with local organizations to find a long-term solution for youth like Reba and John:

“I’m 32 years old and still depend on my family at times for supports and guidance and advice,” she said. “To be a young person who doesn’t have that at 18, 19, 20 years old is impossible for me to fathom.”

One possible solution, according to experts, would be for the state to take advantage of the federal Fostering Connections Act which offers federal matching funds for the cost of extending foster care to the age of 21. An independent analysis of Nebraska’s foster care system showed it would cost the state $2.7 to $3.1 million in the first year of implementation, with federal funds contributing an equal or even greater amount:

“There’s an opportunity here to make an investment in young people,” [Nebraska Appleseed’s Sarah Helvey] said. “And research nationally has shown that there’s a two-to-one return on that.”

Extending foster care to 21 would help Reba get the college degree she wants, but is worried about accumulating debt that she can’t afford to pay back. As for John, he’s leaving Nebraska to join the Navy and hopes that the state finds the right way to help youth who exit out of care:

“I need a job, need an education and I can have a better life for myself,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am only one example of many youth who have learned this lesson too late.”