Gov. Schwarzenegger signed AB12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, on Thursday, allowing foster youth to stay in the system until they are 21. Previously when a foster youth turned 18, they were essentially on their own: penniless, aimless, and often without housing. This lack of stability makes foster youths much more likely to be homelessness, incarcerated, pregnant or addicted to drugs than the average teen.
Under AB12 foster youth who continue their education or job training and who work at least a part-time job would be eligible for extended benefits until they are 21. The costs for these extra years of benefits will be negligible for California, as AB12 is designed to bring the state into compliance with a 2008 act of Congress that made federal matching funds available for these kinds of programs.
Hear the issues from the perspective of former foster care youth
The goal is to give these youth the stability they need to stay in school and become productive members of society. As it currently stands, the foster care system is not adequately preparing these kids for life on their own once they “age-out” of the system at 18.
Lola Bell, a former foster youth who was taken from her drug-addicted mother when she was 2-years-old said she was unprepared for the transition from foster care to emancipation.
“These kids need to be placed in places where people are going to help them, teach them and if not in the household then there needs to be programs that these kids are in before they age out so that they know exactly what they are about to get into because I mean I had no idea that at the age of 18 I was going to be homeless in the streets.”
Lola, who is still in-and-out of shelters, wished for another chance. “I know that if someone would have told me when I was much younger, look Lola, you really need to do everything that you can do with school, with work, save as much money as you can because at 18, you are going to be on the streets, period. And so if someone would have told me that, I would have worked harder.”
A study out of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago documents the struggles facing foster youths who are out on of the system and on their own at age 18:
• 37 percent of foster kids had experienced some period of homelessness by the time they had turned 24.
• Two-thirds of the women in the study got pregnant at least once since leaving foster care.
• By ages 23 or 24 nearly one-quarter of former foster kids in the study had failed to achieve a high school diploma or GED, and only 6 percent had 2- or 4- year degree.
Cost analysis conducted by the Alliance for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group supporting foster youth, found that AB12 will actually save the state $50 million annually by replacing California’s state-funded subsidized guardianship program for relative caregivers with federally-funded programs.
More motivation for keeping foster kids under the government wing a little longer is the fact that the state pays for them one way or another. A 2009 study found that for every dollar invested on California foster youth past age 18 there is a return of $2.40 in increased productivity, without taking into account the increased cost of incarceration, teen pregnancy or homeless shelters.
Trayvon Walker is living proof of the challenges faced by foster kids once they’ve aged out. Born addicted to cocaine, he was taken away from his mother as an infant; emancipated at 18, Trayvon found himself homeless and on his own while trying to go to school. “Being on the streets, having to stay in a shelter, I cried. I literally did not know what to do. I didn’t deserve to be in a shelter.”
Zaneta Bell, Lola’s younger sister, endured the same harsh reality upon turning 18. “We don’t have anybody to turn to. When things get rough, we aren’t like normal kids where we can go mommy, daddy I need help, I can’t pay for school, or I can’t pay for housing, they are about to kick me out, I have no money what do I do.”
In the eyes of former foster youth like Trayvon, reforming the system is an easy call. “This is not an argument or a debate,” declared Trayvon. “We have statistics that tell us that most of the people that are in jail are ex-foster youths. Most of the people you see on the street were homeless and were ex-foster youth. So it just tells you that no, they aren’t doing a good job as far as managing the people’s money.”
Considering the partisan rancor that is a staple of legislative affairs in California, AB12 received solid bipartisan support when it passed on August 31st—in the Assembly there were only two “no” votes on the bill, compared with 72 “ayes.”