Sunday, December 12, 2010

Aging Out Of Foster Care In Michigan

Meet Bill's Kids. These are the youth who are committed to as wards of the state to the Michigan Children's Institute under the guardianship of the world's most powerful parent, Superintendent Bill Johnson.

Why does the state not have enough money for his kids? Fraud.

Too old for foster care, youths struggle

Lack of state, federal funds leave holes in safety net

Catherine Jun / The Detroit News

Detroit -- A growing number of youths in Michigan are reaching adult age while in foster care, a situation experts fear leaves them vulnerable to homelessness, poverty and incarceration.

State and welfare agencies say a lack of funding has been the greatest obstacle to getting these youths the safety net they need when they age out of the system.
When they're pushed out onto the streets at age 19 after years of jumping from home to home, the trauma of being separated from their families and getting inconsistent adult guidance destines them to multiple problems, said Paul Toro, professor of psychology at Wayne State University.

"The cards are against them," Toro said. "And they're expected to be on their own."
When Katrina Killebrew left her foster home, she had no money, job or place to live. For two years, she moved from one homeless shelter to the next in Pontiac, and when there were no beds, she stayed on the streets.

"I was freezing cold and I had to sleep outside," Killebrew said. The 22-year-old has since enrolled in classes to become a medical assistant, found a subsidized apartment for formerly homeless youths and works part time at a doctor's office.
Additional federal funding this fall, state officials say, will enable the state to extend foster care and its payments for several more years for individuals older than 19, which will give them a financial safety net and help them find housing. But some child welfare advocates doubt the state, mired in a budget crisis, will be able to commit enough matching dollars to have a significant impact.

As many as 653 youths reached the end of foster care in 2009 without permanency, a 36 percent increase since 2005, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services. That means as teenagers, they likely pingponged between foster homes and group institutions, having never found adoptive parents and failing to reunify with their own families. Even those with brothers and sisters, in many instances, were placed apart from them.

The transience of these children, often victims of abuse or neglect by their own parents, amplifies their trauma.
"These were kids who were taken away from their parents who were abusive," Toro said. "They're damaged to begin with."

Homeless get help
At Covenant House, a haven in Detroit for homeless and runaway youths, as many a third of residents have aged out of foster care, up from a fifth in previous years, said Melissa Golpe, spokeswoman for Covenant House.

At the 75-bed facility, residents follow a strict schedule: waking at 6 a.m., breakfast at 8, and classes from 9:30 to 3:30 on life skills, GED study or career guidance. Staff members serve as counselors, life coaches and parents, teaching the youngsters to take responsibility for their actions.

"They learn how to be cared for, and how to care for others," said Illene Bosley, a manager of the residential program.

The oft-cited challenge by agencies is a lack of funding for this subgroup of at-risk youths -- to provide beds, hire counselors and mentors or provide stopgap help for rent and basic essentials to help them live on their own.

At Alternatives for Girls, 20 of its 31 beds are for young women who have no place to go. Among them are women who became adults in foster care and found no other lifeline. The Detroit agency lost state funding last year, which amounted to 6 percent of its budget.

"It's been chronically underfunded," Toro said.
More money sought
State officials, with the support of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, are seeking additional money in next year's budget to provide reimbursement for foster care past age 18, in some cases to 20. That amounts to an additional $5.1 million, half of it federal money authorized by the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. The remainder would be state and local money.

By the end of this year, state officials also plan to seek a legislative change to get federal matching dollars to extend payments to age 21, said Kate Hanley, state director of adoption and permanency services.

Previously, "you had to work with what you had," Hanley said, which resulted in youths being sent on their own before they were ready. Most of those enrolled in educational programs or seeking employment, however, could qualify for financial assistance, she said.

Some observers are skeptical, saying the state's budget crisis has forced Michigan to forgo federal matching funds in the past.

"That's part of the tragedy of the current budget crisis," said Jack Kresnak, president and chief executive officer of Michigan's Children. "We're not getting enough federal dollars in Michigan."

While living with his foster parents in Detroit, Jonathan Baker, 23, saw his drug-addicted mother on occasion, never knew his father and rarely saw his youngest sister.

So Baker lashed out, getting into fights at school, setting fires at home and shoplifting at age 12.

When he left his foster home at 18, he tried twice to commit suicide. "I felt like nobody loved me," Baker said. "Everywhere I turned, people turned their back."
Over the past year, Baker, now 23, has gotten his depression under control and plans to enroll at Henry Ford Community College. As one of the older residents at Covenant House, he is mentoring a 21-year-old who is struggling, like he did, to stay hopeful about the future.

"He said, 'When you leave I don't know what's going to happen,' " Baker said. "I said, 'I'm always going to be there.' "

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