Bill looks to curb high rates of homelessness, incarceration among former Nebraska state wards

Nebraska State Sen. Amanda McGill
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May 30, 2013 - 6:30am

The statistics for youth who age out of the nation’s foster care systems are troubling. They show high rates of pregnancy, incarceration and homelessness. A bill passed Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature would extend housing and medical services to age 21 for this “invisible population” to try and improve these outcomes.


Amanda Huxoll was taken from her alcoholic father when she was 9 months old, and again when she was 14 years old. She remained in the foster care system until she turned 19.

“After I aged out, it was not having anything to go back to” that really made it hard, she said. “You know, where do you go for the holidays? Things like that. So it was kind of like, ‘We’ll temporarily care for you, and then when you’re old enough, we won’t care for you anymore.’”

HOW THE BILL WOULD WORK

Eligibility

Foster care youth age 19 and 20 who did not enter they system through the Office of Juvenile Services and who:

  • are enrolled in secondary or post-secondary education;
  • are employed at least 80 hours per month;
  • are participating in a program or activity to remove barriers to employment; or
  • are unable to do any of those things because of a medical condition.
Services
  • Medicaid coverage (until 2014 when the Affordable Care Act will provide for their coverage)
  • Housing support
  • Case management services

There are also some extra services provided for youth tho were adopted or entered guardianship at age 16 or older:

  • Medicaid coverage
  • Continued adoption/guardianship subsidies
 

 

Graph via ChildTrends.org

This graph shows the top 10 states regarding the percentage of foster care youth who age out of the system.

Huxoll got a job as a waitress and enrolled in community college, but she found herself falling behind on bills.

“I had to quit school,” she said. “There was no other way around it.”

Foster care youth in Nebraska age out of the system at age 19. For those who haven’t been adopted or reunited with family, it can leave them with no place to turn. One out of four youth who age out of the system are incarcerated within two years, according to the National Foster Care Coalition. Only half will graduate from high school; just as many will be homeless. 

A bill passed in the Nebraska Legislature yesterday seeks to change the outcome for former state wards like Huxoll. Sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill, LB216 would extend services for foster care youth from age 19 to age 21. Gov. Dave Heineman declined to comment on the bill, which will need his signature – or a veto override – to become law.

The bill is part of a nationwide push connected to the 2008 federal Fostering Connections Act, which provides matching funds for approved extension programs. So far, 16 states have been approved.

“It used to be at the age of 18, if you go back a couple of decades, there were options to get a great job, maybe a factory job that could last you a lifetime, you might go into the military, you might even married,” said John Sciamanna, chief operating officer for the National Foster Care Coalition. “That’s all kind of changed.”

Joanie Spitznagle, who works with homeless former state wards in Omaha through Heartland Family Service, said foster care youth often live lives of instability and emerge from the system without stable support from peers or adults. Many have suffered trauma or have mental health issues; according to the National Foster Care Coalition, youth with foster care experience are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of U.S. war veterans.

They often also lack basic independent living skills, like how to fill out job applications or how to find an apartment; Spitznagle recalled a youth a few months shy of his 19th birthday who asked her to show him how to pump gas, because he’d never done it before.

“I think all of those obstacles sort of make a perfect storm, and they end up in homelessness directly out of foster care or are in homelessness pretty quickly,” she said.

Take a young woman currently enrolled in one of Spitznagle’s programs.

“The only person that she knew, and the only family or supportive person she thought she had, was her mother,” Spitznagle said. “And so she ended up homeless with her mother ... and her mother ended up abandoning her at a bus station.”

Huxoll, too, reconnected with a parent – in this case, her father.

“Growing up, at home, we were very, very poor. When I aged out (of the foster care system), I was by myself completely for almost two years before my dad and I even spoke,” Huxoll said. “Even after that, he said, ‘Well, you were a ward of the state. Why can’t the state take care of you?’”

That’s exactly what Sen. Dave Bloomfield doesn’t want.

“I don’t believe the state is responsible for you until you’re 40 years old, or 30, or 25.”

The senator from Wayne County in northeast Nebraska said instead, schools need more practical job training and life skills classes, and foster parents need to be encouraged to teach those skills.  Bloomfield said he voted against the bill because “it’s another government program that spends a lot of money.”

Money has been the main argument against the bill. An outside consultant group put the price tag at around $2.8 million for each of the first two years; McGill amended the original bill to exclude foster youth from the Office of Juvenile Services, bringing the cost down to an estimated $2.1 million. However, the state Department of Health and Human Services said in written testimony the costs were closer to $12 million.

“The Department of Health and Human Services here in Nebraska is, in my mind, overestimating by believing 50 percent of eligible kids will be using the program,” McGill said. “Other states, even after years of having (these programs), only have 30 percent.”

Health and Human Services officials declined to comment.

Supporters of the bill say the costs of the program would be dwarfed by the economic costs of struggling youth. According to an analysis from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, the lifetime costs for the more than 300 people who aged out of Nebraska’s foster care system in 2012 could reach an estimated $90 million.

“You know, maybe (they’re) homeless, you’ve got costs there,” said Sciamanna with the National Foster Care Coalition. “Early teen pregnancies, you have costs associated there; maybe not even finishing high school, you’ve got costs there. And if they end up in juvenile justice or some other justice system … there’s a tremendous cost.”

Youth who reach age 19 in the foster care system that haven’t been adopted or reunited with family have already been failed by the system, Sciamanna said. 

Former state ward Huxoll said a program like the one proposed in LB216 would have been crucial for her education; the upfront costs of the program are worth it in the long run, she said.

“We can either spend­­ the money now and have (former foster care youth) get educated and move forward to be proper citizens, or we can save our tax dollars and end up paying for a lot of them to spend the rest of their lives in jail,” she said. “I think it’s a good trade.”

Gov. Heineman has until Tuesday to veto the bill.

Discussion

 

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