- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

The number of foster youths leaving state care without a permanent family has reached a record high level, said a study released yesterday.

Foster youths in the Washington metropolitan area are especially likely to “age out” without some kind of legal family tie, according to 2004 data in the report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Kids Are Waiting” campaign and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

Virginia had the nation’s highest percentage of aged-out foster youths: 21 percent of its caseload. West Virginia ranked sixth and the District ranked eighth, with 12 percent of their caseloads aging out. Maryland ranked 11th, with 11 percent aging out.

Young people who leave foster care without permanent families often experience homelessness, poverty, unwed pregnancy and trouble with the law. They also struggle with normal adult milestones, such as obtaining a driver’s license, managing personal finances and building a stable network of friends.

Nicole Dobbins said at a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday that she spent seven years in Oregon’s foster care system only to be “kicked out” of her foster home when she had a birthday and time expired. After graduation, “I was forced to hand over my key,” she said. “I was 18 and homeless.”

“I fell through the cracks,” said Shawn Semelsberger, who was ejected from Michigan’s foster care system midway through her senior year in high school. “I ate free lunch at school,” she said, but she seldom had dinner and was frequently homeless.

“We have failed these children if they ‘age out’ of foster care without a safe, permanent family they can count on,” said Jim O’Hara, managing director for health and human services for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report recommends reforming rules in the federal Title IV-E child welfare program so states can use funding for services to prevent abuse and neglect and support legal guardians. The report also calls for an end to low-income eligibility rules, so any child can receive federal foster care support.

The number of youths aging out appears to be rising even though the national foster care caseload is shrinking. The number of children in care fell 8 percent, from 559,000 to 513,000, from 1998 to 2005. However, the number of youths aging out has risen from 17,310, or 3.1 percent of the caseload, in 1998, to 24,407 youths, or almost 5 percent of the caseload, in 2005.

The vast majority of foster children return to biological families, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Adoption and Foster Care Reporting and Analysis System. Preliminary 2005 data show that of the 287,000 children who exited foster care that year, 186,970 (66 percent) returned to their families, 51,323 (18 percent) were adopted, 24,407 (8 percent) aged out, 12,881 (4 percent) were released to guardians, 6,440 (2 percent) were transferred to another government agency, 4,445 (1 percent) ran away and 534 died because of an illness, accident or homicide.

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