Push to extend foster care from age 18 to 21 could keep more young adults with services they need – The Arizona Republic

Mary Jo Pitzl|Arizona Republic

Foster care ends abruptly when a youth turns18.

Once young people in state care hit that age, they're legally free of the system and many foster youth are more than eager to depart.

Naketa Ross was one of them when she left her foster placement in Chicago 23years ago. It was a big mistake.

I was homeless for a while and then I begged the state to take me back on," Ross said, after enduring bed bugs and a stay in a women's shelter.I didnt have the skill set to transition into adulthood.

The guidance she got when she rejoined the foster system paid off. She got her life together, moved to Arizona and earned her master's degree.

Now a long-time Arizona resident and the founder of a nonprofit that supports foster youth, Ross is advocating for proposed legislation that would assume foster youth stay in Arizona's extended-care program until age 21. Extended foster care provides housing and other services intended to ease the move into adulthood.

The legislation, House Bill 2728, would presume all foster youth stay in the system until age 21 unless they opt out. It's the inverse of the current policy, where foster youth must opt in for extended foster care.

Everyone Ive talked to in foster world says its about time we do this," said Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Avondaleand the bill's sponsor. The measurehas been assigned to the House Health and Human Services Committee but has yet to get a hearing.

Sierra said he can't fathom how he would have fared if he had been out on his own at age 18.

I didnt know how to 'adult'," Sierra joked.

His bill, he said, could reduce the homelessness that many foster youth experience once they're out on their own.

Ifwe can provide that lifeline, its less expensive to bridge them into adulthood instead of all that goes along with those societal costs (of homelessness)," Sierra said.

Extended foster care has grown in popularity, both with Arizona foster kids and in policy circles.

Mike Faust, director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety, told a legislative panel last month that participation in extended foster care has grown about 33 percent since the state tapped extra federal dollars in fall 2019. Currently, there are nearly1,000 youth a month in the program, he said.

Changes spurred by the coronavirus pandemic have created the equivalent of extended foster care even for youthwhohave no interest in the program. Through October, anyone turning age 18 can't be forced to leave foster care, under the terms of the coronavirus relief bill Congress passed at the end of 2020.

The potential of extended foster care to improve young people's lives is great, saidMolly Dunn, director of child welfare and juvenile justice forthe Arizona Children's Action Alliance.

Fewer young people exiting to homelessness, fewer young people getting involved in the criminal justice system, more young people employed and in school," she said as she listed some of the benefits of the program.

"Its one of the more equitable interventions from a race and ethnicity standpoint," she added, sincefoster care has a disproportionate share ofminority youth.

Ross said her experience in Illinois two decades ago showed her the benefits of staying in foster care, something her 18-year-old self rejected. When she got back into the program, she pulled her life together. She latermoved to Arizona, earned a master's degree and founded ResilientMe, a nonprofit that trains foster youth in skillsto help them as they enter adulthood.

Cheyenne Planck jumped at the chance to opt in to Arizona's extended foster-care program.

"I think it's so beneficial," said Planck, who turns 20 next month. She gets a monthly stipend, counseling and guidance on"all the adult stuff, like taxes and stuff." Shegot insight on how to rent an apartment, build a resume, understand what credit is and how to apply for a credit card.

I know I should know this," Planck said. "But they dont teach you these things in school.

She knows many of her fellow foster youth are wary of staying one day longer than their 18th birthday. They may have had a bad relationship with their case manager or have chafed at the constraints of living in a group home.

But extended foster care, Planck said, is different. A student at Arizona State University hoping to pursue a nursing degree, she is living with a roommate in Tempe. She's saving a portion of her monthly $715stipend so she can eventually buy a car and maybe afford to adopt a kitten.

"Once youre 18, its completely different," she said. "Its like free money and you have to meet with your case manager once a month.

She said a presumption that a foster kid stays in the program beyond age 18is better than the current practice of opting in. Many youth might not focus on the program if they don't get along with their case manager, she said.

Ross said many of the youth she deals with pay scant attention to the prospect of extended foster care.

The conversation rarely is 'Here are the benefits if you stay'," Ross said. It's more like "You can stay if you want," she said.

HB2728would change that conversation to an invitation, one that Ross hopes would come across as "We would love to have you.

Whether the bill will get a hearing is unclear. There are some technicalities to changing the policy and even with the opt-in provision, Arizona's program has had recent growth, given the 33 percent increase over thelast year and a half.

There are other changes that could make extended foster care more attractive. Foster youth who advise the Children's Action Alliance have suggested several approaches that could create a more inviting atmosphere. They include:

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

For more stories about what is being done, and can be done, for Arizona's foster youth, subscribe to The Arizona Republic.

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Push to extend foster care from age 18 to 21 could keep more young adults with services they need - The Arizona Republic

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