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Foster Kids Who Age Out of Care Face Tough Road

Many rites of passages come along with turning eighteen: high school graduation, voting, entering the work force or college. For most young people it means the first time away from home and parents, an exciting, albeit scary, time for which many teens have been anxiously waiting for years. But for youth who reach the age of majority while in foster care, the rite of passage comes with additional challenges.

Tabitha Bowen, 19, is a petite young woman with curly brown hair. The soft-spoken, Ohio Dominican sophomore is a social work major.

Bowen was 14 when she and her siblings were removed from their home due to neglect. They were separated and placed in different foster homes. Bowen attended five high schools in four years.

"I was bounced around more than some other people," she said.

Foster children face many obstacles unseen by their counterparts. And most do not end up in college like Bowen. The Pew Charitable Trusts reports, nationally, 25 percent of foster kids who age out will end up in jail within two years; 20 percent face homelessness; and fewer than three percent will earn a four-year degree.

Each year, about 1,300 young people age out of the foster care system statewide. In Franklin County, there currently are about 200 youth going through some stage of emancipation. Between 500 and 600 youth will age out of the agency this year.

When Bowen turned 17, she realized she soon would have to take care of herself. So she moved into what she calls a host home to help prepare her for the switch from foster care to independence.

"She was my mentor for two or three years. And I just decided to move in with her because it was a different environment and the environment I needed to be on my own," Bowen said.

Lisa Dickson is founder of the Ohio Chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America. She's also a former foster child who aged out in Kentucky. Dickson said her biggest concern for emancipating youth right now is the economy.

"Right now we're in a recession, and for the youth job market it's worse than ever," Dickson said.

Dickson, who experienced a bout of homelessness when she aged out, recalls some of the challenges she and other foster youth face.

"Where do you go? Where do you sleep? How do you afford housing? We're in a recession. How do you get a job? How do you get a job to afford housing?"

While Franklin County and a few other counties offer emancipation classes to help youth get ready for the transition, many do not.

Children Services emancipation department head, Ed Mills, said at age of 16 foster children are tested on independent living skills. And a plan is developed to improve areas where the teens are weak. When they turn 18, a case worker monitors their progress and in Mills' words "pushes them in the right direction." That direction might include life skills classes. "There are 10-week classes that help prepare the youth in things about budgeting, how to find an apartment, to give them the foundation knowledge of independent living," Mills said.

Bowen said the emancipation classes were helpful in preparing her for the change.

"I think there's something that's really good for some of the people because they are not used to being in that, they haven't learned to take care of themselves so they're finally getting to that point," she said.

Social service programs recently have seen cuts due to the poor economy, and Lisa Dickson is pushing for the reinstatement of federal dollars that used to be allocated only for emancipation programs. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is a federal grant. TANF money in Ohio used to be budgeted for programs to prepare foster youth for adulthood. But Dickson said that money can now be used for other costs and services. She wants that changed in the next state biennial budget.

"The minute we turn 18 and are emancipated, we're already on our own," she said. "We shouldn't have to fight for money just to give us the basic level of preparation to live on our own."

In addition to losing TANF dollars, Franklin County's emancipation department has seen a reduction in other funding. One bright spot is that Franklin County voters just passed a levy that raises $94 million a year for ten years.

Children Services' Ed Mills said he does not want to paint the picture that the department has plenty of money, but he said state budget cuts have not impacted the youths' needs.

"In a day in age where cuts are made and hard decisions have to be made so far our administration has made decisions that help benefit the youth that transition from our agency to independent living," he said.

When asked what he thinks the biggest obstacle facing teens who age out of the foster care system, Mills said, "I think being scared of the unknown. You know, going out there. And the fact that there are plenty of people out there that try to take advantage of young people. And I think these are life hurdles that are there regardless of what situation you're in, but I think they're bigger hurdles for our youth."

Franklin County Children Services also offers assistance to former foster children until they turn 21. "So if they fall on hard times we're there to help pick them up," he said.

Tabitha Bowen said it's important to build a network of friends before leaving foster care like teachers and coworkers. She thinks many young people do not overcome the experience of being in foster care until they have their own family. Bowen, wants to go into international social work one day, and possibly work with youth who face the same challenges she once did.