STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When you turn 18, it can be hard to move out, find a job, or settle in at college - especially now. Foster children must do it largely by themselves, without the lifeline to parents and home that helps many teens.
A report out today says many former foster kids don't make it. They are more likely to end up in jail or homeless or pregnant. They're less likely to have a job or to go to college.
NPR's Pam Fessler met some young people in Tampa, Florida, who are making the transition.
PAM FESSLER: We all know that growing up can be difficult - a tug-of-war between wanting freedom and someone to count on. But what if you also have to deal with this?
Mr. JOSH MENDOZA: I've been in foster care for, like, two years. I switched to a lot of group homes and stuff. I've been in like, 14 group homes and stuff.
FESSLER: That's right - 14 homes in two years.
Meet Josh Mendoza, a shy, young man with soulful eyes and a hint of dark hair along his upper lip. He was removed from his mother's care because she used drugs. But now he's turned 18 and like 30,000 other foster teens this year, he's suddenly out on his own.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Mr. MENDOZA: This is my apartment.
FESSLER: Mendoza opens the door to a small garden apartment in Tampa. The living room's empty except for a navy blue futon and a small TV. The walls are bare. He's just getting settled. There's food in the cupboard, but not a lot.
Mr. MENDOZA: Spaghetti, Cream of Wheat. I got some cleaning stuff here. I got -this is, um, bleach.
FESSLER: Living on your own is a little weird, says Mendoza, kind of lonely, and a challenge. His only cooking experience in foster care was heating soup in the microwave.
Mr. MENDOZA: Yesterday, I was trying to cook. I don't think it turned out too good. With the burgers, it kind of got burnt.
FESSLER: He's looking at a frying pan on the stove. The bottom is covered with congealed fat.
But unlike many foster care teens, Mendoza has been getting some help.
Mr. NICK RESCHKE (Transition Specialist): The day he turned 18, went and picked up his check, went grocery shopping, went over a list of what he needs, what his budgets are.
FESSLER: Nick Reschke is a transition specialist, a kind of big brother-slash-parent provided to foster youth here in Hillsborough County. He helped Mendoza find his apartment, sign the lease and move in.
Mr. RESCHKE: And then after that, Josh and I, we pretty much just cleaned the apartment up, wiped down the counters, wiped down the cabinets, and set up his house. And that was his first night.
FESSLER: It was also his 18th birthday.
Ms. DIANE ZAMBITO (Connected by 25): We have an abrupt cutoff, like most states.
FESSLER: Diane Zambito runs Connected by 25, a Tampa nonprofit that's trying to smooth the transition.
Ms. ZAMBITO: We go from, you're in foster care - where you may handle $10 a month - to, you're responsible for everything.
FESSLER: She says things have come a long way since 10 years ago, when some foster kids here turned 18, put their belongings in a plastic bag, and were taken to the nearest homeless shelter. But she says even with the help they do get, few are prepared for the challenges of adulthood.
Ms. ZAMBITO: We need to offer something for these young people other than, here's option A: Fall off the cliff.
FESSLER: And today's new study finds that those who age out of foster care, while not exactly falling off the cliff, are desperately clinging to the edge.
Mark Courtney is with the University of Washington. He and colleagues from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago have been following the progress of more than 600 former foster kids over the past eight years.
Dr. MARK COURTNEY (University of Washington): Many of them are faring poorly. Less than half were employed at 23, 24. They're much less likely to have finished high school, less likely to be enrolled in college or have a college degree.
FESSLER: In fact, by age 24, only 6 percent have degrees. More than two-thirds of the young women have children. Nearly 60 percent of the males have been convicted of a crime.
Dr. COURTNEY: Those children are our children, they're the children of society, of the state. I would argue that we have no business taking them into care and then keeping them until they're in the transition to adulthood, unless we're going to try to do a good job of that.
Ms. SARAH HART (Program Coordinator): All right. So, Josh, you know we do this once a month. You've been in the hot seat before, so let's start by getting an update on your progress.
FESSLER: Two weeks after his 18th birthday, Josh Mendoza meets his advisers at a GED program for those aging out of care. Sarah Hart is concerned because the first day Mendoza was on his own, in his new apartment, he didn't come to school.
Ms. HART: Why is that, Josh?
Mr. MENDOZA: I had no way of getting here and...
Ms. HART: Why not?
Mr. MENDOZA: Transportation. And I woke up a little too late and I tried...
FESSLER: Turns out his alarm clock didn't go off on time, and he missed his bus. Sarah Hart does what a parent might do.
Ms. HART: My question is, did you call Mr. Mark or Miss Colette to let them know you weren't going to be here that day?
Mr. MENDOZA: No.
Ms. HART: OK. And those things are going to happen. And you've just turned 18 and it's - you know, you're getting adjusted to coming from a new place. I mean, I get all that. If that happens again, though, you have to call your teachers and let them know. That's part of being responsible and, you know, just communicating.
FESSLER: Mendoza knows he can't afford to screw up. He gets a $1,200 monthly stipend from the state, only if he stays in school.
Mr. MENDOZA: If I lose my check, that's really - I'm going to the street. And then I wouldn't know what to do, or who to ask, or who to turn to.
FESSLER: Researchers say former foster kids who have someone to rely on do better than those who don't. But right now, only a handful of states provide foster care beyond 18. And while some are planning to do more in response to a new federal law, state budgets are tight.
But Mark Courtney, of the University of Washington, says this is also a resilient group. By age 24, about half of those surveyed in his new study appear to be doing OK. Their lives have begun to stabilize.
Ms. KATRENA WINGO: Can you hear Mommy?
Mr. AJAI WINGO: Yes.
Ms. WINGO: What is Mommy saying?
FESSLER: Katrena Wingo considers herself one of those people. At 24, she has a job and a place in Tampa for her and her 3-year-old son, Ajai, to live. It's a tiny duplex, but with a yard big enough for playing.
Ms. WINGO: I love you.
AJAI WINGO: Love you.
Ms. WINGO: I love you mucho.
A. WINGO: I love you mucho.
Ms. WINGO: Mucho, mucho, mucho.
A. WINGO: Mucho, mucho.
FESSLER: But it's been a long haul getting here. Wingo entered foster care as an infant and stayed until her 18th birthday. After she aged out, she was OK for a while, but then she got pregnant. She stopped working and spent months moving from one friend's sofa to another.
Ms. WINGO: And at the time, I wasn't going to school. So it was hard.
FESSLER: But eventually, with the help of friends, some family members and Connected by 25, she began to turn things around. Wingo says perhaps the biggest eye-opener was having a child of her own.
Ms. WINGO; It's just like, OK, you have another life in here that you brought into this world, and now everything that you do, everything that you own, everything that you spend, is not only yours or for you, it's for your child now. So he's your number one priority.
FESSLER: She still depends on food stamps and her landlord to cut her some slack when the rent is due, but Wingo's back in school, trying to earn her degree. She hopes someday to become a counselor for troubled youth.
And Josh Mendoza? He says if he gets his college degree, his goal is to run group homes. But first, he has to make sure his alarm clock works.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And at NPR.org, a multimedia slideshow, which is running on my screen here now, takes a closer look into the lives of the two former foster kids profiled in Pam's story.
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