- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

A new study of more than 650 former foster children finds many struggled to find jobs, health insurance and housing after they left state care.

More than half of these foster care “alumni” said they experienced at least one mental health issue — such as depression or panic attacks — in the last year, said the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study, released yesterday by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School.

These findings show that the country is still “not doing enough” to help foster children transition into a healthy adulthood, said Ruth Massinga, president and chief executive of the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, which assists in foster care services and reforms.

The study is based on case records of 659 adults who spent at least one year in foster care between 1988 and 1989 in Oregon or Washington state; 479 of these adults were also located and interviewed.

Nearly 85 percent of the alumni finished high school, which compares favorably with the general population’s 87 percent graduation rate, said Peter Pecora, Casey’s research director.

But less than 2 percent of the alumni had gotten a college degree, compared with 24 percent of their peers in the general population.

The alumni’s employment rate also was lower (80 percent, compared with 95 percent) than that of other young people. In addition, 33 percent of the former foster children had incomes at or below the poverty line, 33 percent had no health insurance and 22 percent had experienced homelessness at least once after they left state care, the study said.

The study further found that the traumas the alumni experienced as children often stayed with them as adults. More than 54 percent said they experienced at least one mental health issue in the last year. Twenty percent had three or more mental health issues.

While the study found that the alumni had a recovery rate comparable to those who had not been in foster care, it concluded that this population was in great need of mental health insurance coverage.

“After experiencing a lot of trauma, you don’t come out unscathed,” said Mary Anne Herrick, who spent seven years in foster care.

The nation’s independent-living programs, which serve foster youth “aging out” of the system, also need an “overhaul,” the study said.

In 1999, Congress passed the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, which reformed the program and doubled its funding to $140 million a year. However, federal and state outcome evaluations promised in the law haven’t materialized, Mr. Pecora said.

“As a result, we don’t know what the effects of the Chafee bill and that upsurge of interest in transition services is having on the 20,000 children who leave foster care every year.”

The Chafee law also allows states to extend Medicaid coverage to foster youth until age 21, but fewer than 10 states have done so, he added.

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