Supporters: Measure to save millions over time
By ALEXIS RUFENER
When Tasha Jones turned 18, she didn’t get a birthday party. She got emancipation papers and the slap of reality. She had just aged out of foster care, after being shuttled through 12 different homes.
“I wasn’t listened to, I was ignored and then I guess you could say at the end – I was abandoned,” said Jones, who is now 19. “If it wasn’t for the A Place 4 Me program, I would still be homeless.”
A Place for Me is community initiative in Cuyahoga County that provides housing for aged-out foster children.
Pat Sciaretta, director of social services at the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, has seen the same thing.
“The foster parent has told them, they’re 18 now and they need to get out. And they became homeless, said Sciaretta. “They basically go from friend’s house to friend’s house and stay there for a while, until they’re asked to leave. We’re basically the last resort for them here at the mission.”
Both programs may see fewer aged-out foster youths coming to their doors if a bill that passed the Ohio House makes it to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 50 extends foster care to age 21. Twenty states have already done this. Ohio representatives passed the bill May 8 with a vote of 28-3. Now, it goes to the Senate.
This is a good idea, according Rachel Ketterman, children services administrator at Columbiana County Department of Job and Family Services.
“I don’t think any kid is ready for the real world at 18. It’s not feasible to think,” Ketterman said, “Financial assistance will be needed if it’s extended.”
Also, there is a difference between being 18 in a stable home environment and being 18 in a foster-care environment.
“When you compare them to 18-year-olds who haven’t had the trauma of being moved from their home and living in a public system, they’re not really age 18 – mentally and emotionally,” said Patty Amendolea, community education specialist at Mahoning County Children’s Services.
Since its inception in 2001, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, based in St. Louis, Mo., has promoted extending the foster care age across the nation.
“Fundamentally, we believe that in today’s society, young people don’t typically leave their homes at 18 on their own. And, they’re not prepared to do so even from intact families, let alone young people from foster care. There’s a lot of support for this right now, said Lynn Tiede, policy director for the initiative. “It’s not in the big scheme of things, a big costly item.”
While the upfront costs are in the millions, supporters say the benefits will be felt down the road.
Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, a primary sponsor of the bill, estimates the extension would cost $24.5 million dollars, with the state responsible for $9.7 million in funding. That’s for the first year, 2016. The cost would remain the same through 2018, but the state portion would increase to $13.9 million in 2019 and 2020.
“Within 10 years, the state will benefit $1.8 for every dollar spent,” Pelanda told the House Finance Committee during a hearing May 5.
This figure is based on analysis of states that have already extended the age limit.
“We can estimate a benefit to the state in increased tax revenues and reduced dependency on assistance,” Pelanda said.
The bill sponsors point to statistics in Ohio to prove their point.
“At age 19, 14 percent had a child, 24 percent worked part time and only 12 percent were employed full time, 26 percent had experienced homelessness, 36 percent were incarcerated and 53 percent had not earned a high school diploma or GED” said Pelanda.
The extension would not be granted automatically. There are education and work requirements. First, participants must sign a volunteer agreement. Then, they must continue their education, learn a trade or work at least 80 hours a month.
The Casey Initiative finds foster children who remain in care until 21 will double their chance of earning a college degree and thereby earn more money later in life.
Not everyone thinks the extension is necessary for every foster child.
Shannon Willaman, a supervisor with Columbiana County Child and Family Services, said some children who age out of the system at 18 will be just as ready as they would be if they waiting to leave when they reached 21.
“We try to gauge what to set them up for,” Willaman said.
Children Services has programs in place to help teenagers learn household chores, get jobs and anything else they would need to set up planned permanent homes, she said.
“I think that extending it – from the point of view of a caseworker – is a good idea,” said Amendolea. “However, from their point of view … they look forward to 19 thinking, ‘I’m an adult. No one can tell me what to do.’
“They are so focused on that. They are not focused at all on the responsibilities of being an adult and living on their own. That’s what scares me.
“They’ll get to the point where 18 to 21 is too long for them and they’ll run away. In two weeks, they’ll be living at the Rescue Mission.”
Sciarretta says that makes things difficult for the mission as well.
“ I would rather have a 21-year-old or a 22-year-old come in here homeless. They are a little more mature to work with,” she said.
Amendolea predicts a bleak future for teens who won’t stay in foster care until age 21.
“They’ll be assaulted. They’ll be victims of some kind of domestic abuse. We know that as adults. We can foresee that, but it’s hard to convince them that this is what may happen to you,” she said.
Getting an education and employment are keys to the success or failure of the proposed state extension.
“Employment is the key. I think employment helps people with their self-esteem. It teaches responsibility. And once that happens, doors will open for them because they do have an income and they have a record of going to work,” said Sciarretta.
Nicolette Pizzuto, Brittany Wenner and Jessica Mowchan contributed to this report.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and The University of Cincinnati, and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).