CINCINNATI – Alexis Cook was 18 when she left the state’s foster care system in 2008.
She had just graduated from Winton Woods High School after moving from a group home to semi-independent living. A social worker helped her find an apartment. But she didn’t know how to cook or ride a bus. She got a job she didn’t have the skills or discipline to keep.
After a couple years, she was evicted and homeless. She got pregnant with twins.
“I was homeless for seven months while I was pregnant. A lot of days, I didn’t eat,” said Cook, who is now 23. “I had to resort to bad behavior just to survive.”
She begged for money. She sometimes traded sex for something to eat or a place to sleep.
“You don’t know who’s who and what’s what,” she said. “This is a mean world we live in.”
It can be especially mean for teenagers who “age out” of the foster care system without being adopted or reunited with family.
While some of those young adults go to college or get a job and build a stable life for themselves, experts estimate hundreds across the state end up like Cook – homeless, desperate and alone.
That’s why child welfare advocates are pushing to extend foster care services to the age of 21 in Ohio. Washington, D.C., and 25 states, including Indiana, already have extended services beyond the age of 18. In Kentucky, foster youth can petition the state before they turn 19 and request additional services until they’re 21.
“It’s definitely the right thing to do for a very deserving population,” said Mark Mecum, executive director of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies in Columbus. “And we have so much information that shows us if we do this right, not only will it tremendously improve their lives, but it will save our society so much in costs.”
‘No Safety Net’
The Ohio Fostering Connections coalition led by Mecum has commissioned a new study to determine precisely what it would cost Ohio to extend care through age 21 and how much it would save the state long-term. Alvin Mares, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Social Work, is conducting the study and expects to have a first draft finished by May.
About 1,000 young people age out of the system each year in Ohio. The number was 921 in 2013.
That included 98 young adults in Hamilton County, 18 in Clermont County, 12 in Butler County and five in Warren County, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
A total of 112 youth aged out of care in Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky last year, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Kenton County had the highest number with 67.
Early estimates are that extending foster care to the age of 21 in Ohio would cost a total of $68 million a year. The federal government would cover $51 million of that annual cost because of a law passed by Congress in 2009, leaving Ohio or its counties to pay $17 million annually.
Previous research indicates that investment would pay off for the young adults in foster care and taxpayers.
Researchers at Chapin Hall, a child and family research center at the University of Chicago, found that young people formerly in foster care were far more likely to be unemployed than the general population. Young men were also far more likely to be arrested, and young women were far more likely to become pregnant at a young age.
Staying in foster care through age 21 more than doubled the odds that young adults would be working or in school at age 19. They also were twice as likely to have finished at least a year of college by the time they were 21. And young women who stayed in care longer saw a 38 percent reduction in pregnancy before the age of 20, according to the study.
The study didn’t try to explain why the extra time in care made such a big difference, said Amy Dworsky, a senior researcher at Chapin Hall. But it seems logical that it’s tough for many teens to leave the structure of the foster care system – especially considering the trauma that probably put them there in the first place – and manage on their own without help, she said.
“There’s no safety net for them,” she said. “Young people in the general population, when they run into trouble, most of them can go to Mom and Dad or a grandparent or another relative to get some assistance.”
‘Nobody Has Your Back’
That wasn’t an option for Dana Brown.
Now 19, Brown entered the foster care system in Fort Wayne, Ind., when he was eight. His mother was mixed up with drugs, he said, and she left one day and didn’t come back. He lived with his older sister for a while, but she was only 19 at the time. So he became part of the system.
He went to a group home when he was 11. A relative adopted
him when he was 16, but the adoption "didn't work out," he said. Brown ended up homeless in Greater Cincinnati before he finished high school.
He lived on the streets and struggled to stay out of the trouble that seems to find young people like him.
“A lot of people I know are in jail right now,” he said. “When you have no resources, you feel like nobody has your back.”
Brown got off the streets in January when he started staying at the Lighthouse Sheakley Center for Youth, a homeless shelter for young adults. The shelter on Highland Avenue has 28 beds for homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24. It's at or near capacity at all times. Its street outreach team operates in Over-the-Rhine, downtown and throughout Hamilton County, looking for youth like Brown to help.
Now Brown has a job with a cleaning company and an apartment in Westwood. He earned his high school diploma online.
“It’s living from paycheck to paycheck,” he said of his life now. “But it’s better than being out on the streets.”
Legislation Would Extend Services
Mecum and other members of the Ohio Fostering Connections coalition are confident Ohio lawmakers will see the wisdom of extending the age of foster care to help young people like Brown.
State Rep. Zack Milkovich, D-Akron, and State Rep. Lynn Watchmann, R-Napoleon, on Jan. 30 introduced House Bill 423 to extend services to foster youth through age 21.
The bill doesn’t have funding attached to it currently.
That’s a problem for people like Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County Job & Family Services.
Weir would love to see appropriate services extended to young adults in the foster care system, she said, but county child welfare agencies can’t be responsible for paying the bills.
“This is really a community issue. It’s not just a JFS issue,” Weir said. “These young adults come into our community. We want them to be productive and successful.”
Unlike many other states, Ohio has a “state-supervised, county-administered” child welfare system. That means each county has the authority to run its system as it sees fit.
But it also means most of the money that funds the system comes from the federal government or from the counties themselves. The state pays very little.
Some counties, such as Hamilton, have levies to help fund services in addition to various local nonprofits, such as Lighthouse Youth Services, that raise money on their own to provide support.
Other counties do not, which means services vary widely across the state, said Bob Mecum, the long-time CEO of Lighthouse Youth Services and Mark Mecum’s father.
Supporters of extending foster care services want the state to commit to paying the additional cost, he said.
But they argue the money must also be spent wisely.
Any extended care for young adults should be tailored to their specific needs, said Crystal Ward Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. Her organization represents county government officials like Weir. Mark Mecum’s group represents nonprofits like Lighthouse.
“There’s not one person you could find who would not want to really improve the outcomes for these youth,” she said. “But have we seen any models that empower these young adults to be more successful in going forward rather than just delaying the inevitable outcome?”
In other words, she said, being homeless at age 22 isn’t much better than being homeless at age 19.
The research underway by OSU’s Mares will address that issue by examining what other states have done to help older youth in foster care and which programs have been most successful.
Ohio counties already provide teenagers in foster care with life skills training, typically after they turn 16, Mares said. Teens in foster care get paid a stipend to attend classes that are supposed to teach them how to balance a checkbook, rent an apartment, cook and take care of themselves.
“It largely falls on deaf ears,” Mares said. “Most teenagers, frankly, aren’t that interested in learning how to shop and how to budget and how to balance a checkbook. These are the kind of skills we learn as we need them.”
Programs for older youth should reinforce those lessons and give young adults the opportunity to come back to the system for help and guidance as they try to live on their own, Allen said.
The Indiana Way
That’s what Indiana’s system does, said Alishea Hawkins, assistant deputy director of services and outcomes at the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Indiana has always had the ability to keep foster youth in the system until they’re 21. But the state implemented a new “Collaborative Care” system for older foster youth starting in July 2012, Hawkins said. The system, which was designed in collaboration with Indiana youth, serves young people until they’re 20 and allows them to come back for guidance and help until they’re 21, she said.
Their cases are handled by people specially trained to help young adults with such things as navigating financial aid forms for college or connecting
with state workforce offices.
“We know that we have an increased number of youth attending college because we can now support them through their first, second, sometimes even third year of college,” Hawkins said.
Going to college increases earning potential and the chance for long-term success, Chapin Hall’s Dworsky said.
‘A Better Life’
That’s what Tevin Brunner wants to do.
Brunner was in foster care from age 11 to 18. After he aged out, he was homeless for two years, moving around with friends or sleeping with other homeless youth under bridges or in abandoned buildings, often in Cincinnati. Sometimes he stayed as far away as West Virginia.
“We were eating at churches every day and then sleeping under bridges,” Brunner said.
Now 21, Brunner has his own apartment and is planning to attend Northern Kentucky University. He wants to become a special education teacher and help kids in ways he wishes he had been helped as a boy.
Brown has big plans, too. He wants to attend the University of Cincinnati and get a job in the medical field.
And Cook, she’s studying hospitality management at Antonelli College.
She gave birth to her twins late last year, but they don’t live with her.
Her baby boy died of SIDS when he was just two and a half months old. She gave up her baby girl for adoption.
“It was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” she said of the adoption. “It wasn’t the easiest decision, but I wanted a better life for her.”
For more information about Ohio Fostering Connections or to find out how you can help, go to http://www.ohiofosteringconnections.org .
Lighthouse Youth Services will begin a new class for foster parent training on April 7. For more information or to register to attend the session, call Lighthouse Foster Care & Adoption at (513) 487-7135 or go to www.BeTheSomebody.org.
Interactive informational graphic by WCPO multimedia producer Libby Duebber.
Photography by WCPO's Greg Singleton.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.