Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Foster care alumna advocates for extending foster care until age 21

Opinion by Jim Beall
Special to the Mercury News, Dec. 16, 2008.

No caring parent would banish their son or daughter from their home and cut off all relations just because that child became 18 years old. But for many youths who "age out'' of California's foster care system that's exactly what happens.

Take the case of Vanessa Payne of San Jose, who shared her story of all that could go wrong for a youth leaving the system.

After earning her general education degree, Payne was forced out of her group home with her belongings stuffed in a plastic garbage bag. Alone and with no money, no family or support, she became involved with a drug-dealing sugar daddy, a relationship that ended with a narcotics conviction and jail time. By 19, she was an expectant single mother.

But she managed to turn her life around with guidance. Now 25, Payne graduates this month from San Jose State University with a dual major in psychology and behavioral science. She is employed and lives in an apartment with her 5-year-old son.

For every Vanessa Payne who defied the odds there are thousands of others whose lives are consigned to cells, courtrooms or minimum-wage jobs simply because they had no support in making that precarious transition from foster care to adulthood.

"As a foster youth, we need to know we are loved and supported,'' Payne said. "When we are kicked out at 18, we pretty much lose faith in adults; we lose faith in relationships and connections, and that leaves us to our own devices to survive. I really feel that if the state is able to extend foster care to 21, I strongly believe you'd see more youth going to college and being employed. I wish those services had been provided to me. It would have saved me a lot of heartache.''

Today, California has been presented with an opportunity to fundamentally change foster care. In October, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, providing $3 billion to help pay for foster care to age 21.

I have introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 12, to make California's foster care system eligible for those federal dollars by extending state foster care benefits to 21, beginning Oct. 1, 2010. With this subsidy from Washington, we can nurture the education and careers of youths who were removed from their abusive and derelict parents.

It is unrealistic to believe these fledglings, suddenly jettisoned out of the system, are prepared to tackle the harsh realities of life alone.

Consider this: About 4,500 of California's 74,000 foster care children are "aged out'' annually. One in four will be jailed within two years of emancipation; 20 percent become homeless. More than half are high school dropouts; only 3 percent get a college degree. Almost half are unemployed at age 21.

The evidence is clear: A strong bridge of support to 21 not only creates responsible, contributing citizens but will save taxpayers millions in court, prison, and human and social costs.

I am not alone on this issue. Speaker Karen Bass and 11 more legislators have signed onto AB 12.

I also believe every father and mother in California would back this bill, too, for the simple reason they would not want any foster child to be forsaken and forgotten merely because they celebrated their 18th birthday.

-Jim Beall, a Democrat, represents the 24th Assembly District in San Jose. He wrote this article for the Mercury News

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