On the edge

44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: For foster youth, turning 18 means growing up fast

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Kirsten Johnson-Bell, 18, said she was in 20 different foster care placements since 2007
PHOTO BY SARAH PHELAN

rebeccab@sfbg.com

It's a strange and daunting time for anyone just starting out, but youth who age out of foster care are up against particularly harsh challenges.

In July, the national unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds reached a staggering 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine described how, in the face of a bleak job market, 20-somethings today are far more likely than those in past generations to go back to school, travel, volunteer, or complete unpaid internships — extending a phase of impermanence and financial dependency for years beyond what used to be considered the norm. Studies show that nearly half of youth between ages 18 and 25 move back home with their parents at least once.

But young people aging out of the foster care system typically have to face this world of churning uncertainty without the benefit of a safety net. Many post-foster care youth don't have the luxury of "failing to launch," embarking on an early career path without pay, or landing back home if nothing else pans out. Foster youth lose their support base at 18, when the state ceases to be their legal guardian. For these young people, who are often the least equipped to achieve financial self-sufficiency, becoming emancipated as a legal adult is no cause for celebration; rather, it's a source of anxiety.

Most foster youth lack the skills, connections, and resources they would need to transition to independence at age 18 — a prospect that would be difficult even for youth with greater access to resources and no major family history problems. Studies measuring the outcomes for this population paint a grim picture: many wind up homeless, incarcerated, or at risk of losing children of their own by the time they reach their early 20s.

There's a growing awareness that many of the approximately 5,000 youth who age out of foster care in California every year are slipping through the cracks. Local and state programs have been initiated to improve their chances of achieving independence, but efforts on both fronts have run up against obstacles.

In Sacramento, Assembly Bill 12 — which extends key services for foster youth to age 21 — was signed into law several weeks ago, but the intentions behind it were undermined when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a line-item veto of $80 million in funding for child welfare programs. In San Francisco, a housing facility designed for youth at risk of homelessness seems to hold promise as an effective model, yet it has encountered resistance from local neighborhood organizations.

The plight of these young people is both a measure of our compassion and potentially a harbinger of larger societal problems to come.

HIGH STAKES

Kirsten Johnson-Bell is an emancipated youth who turned 18 in January. She has six siblings still in foster care in the East Bay, and she says she has been in more than 20 foster care placements since 2007.

Johnson-Bell told the Guardian that she has housing assistance that will last for 18 months — but she's already beginning to wonder what will happen after that. "Where am I supposed to go?" Johnson-Bell wondered. If the experience of her peers who've exited the system is any indication, her concern is well founded.

Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of post-foster-care youth have been homeless at some point by the time they turn 24, according to survey results released by the University of Chicago and Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington. Just 6 percent had completed college degrees by that age, and only 48 percent were working — mostly in low-wage jobs. More than half of the young men had been convicted of crimes, and roughly three-quarters of the young women had received government benefits to meet basic needs. Teen pregnancy is statistically higher among young women exiting foster care.

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