The Plight of America's Post-Foster Care Children
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Peter Pecora is the senior director of research at the Casey Family Programs. He specializes in tracking what happens to young people after they leave foster care. And he joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Welcome to the program.
Mr. PETER PECORA (Senior Director of Research, Casey Family Programs, Seattle, Washington): Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Approximately, how many children age out of foster care each year?
Mr. PECORA: Between 20,000 and 25,000 children leave foster care at about ages 17 or 18 or 19.
HANSEN: And generally, what can you tell us about what happens to them?
Mr. PECORA: In our follow-up studies, Casey Family Programs partnered with a couple of state agencies and Harvard Medical School. And in a recent study that we did, we documented that many of these youth on the success side had completed high school, but too many had completed high school with a GED, which is sort of an equivalency diploma that you get by completing the exam.
And we found that about one in five had been homeless for a day or more within a year of leaving care. And while many of these foster care alumni wanted to enroll in college, and in fact did so, their dropout rates were tremendously high, and only about 3 percent had completed college at the time we had interviewed them at an average age of 24. And that compares to 28 percent of the general population who have completed a BA degree or higher.
HANSEN: Given, then, the long odds that these kids face, are there programs in place to get them, say, job training or placement opportunities before they leave care?
Mr. PECORA: The better child welfare agencies now are starting very early with building life skills for these children. The better programs are, in fact, licensing their foster homes as fost-adopt homes, so that if a child's situation meshed well and they grow closer together, we find that many foster parents end up adopting these children.
And so they start out smart by making sure that that youth has an excellent opportunity to find what we would call a forever family. And then they back that up with life skills training early on. They try to have the youth get a little bit of job experience because many of these youth have difficulty in school and they have to concentrate in catching up in math, reading or science. So they have to balance that employment experience with the educational supports that these children need.
HANSEN: So is it a case that some states are trying to provide some kind of safety net, and some states don't have these programs in place? Is it different from state to state?
Mr. PECORA: The better states are extending either health care coverage, housing, educational programs in terms of free college tuition. One of the most important things they're doing is they're allowing youth to stay in a foster home beyond age 18, while they're trying to finish high school and get a start at college.
HANSEN: Are the states required to provide any kind of financial assistance to these kids that are coming out of care?
Mr. PECORA: Well the Chafee Act, which is a federal law, does provide some provisions for housing and other assistance. There is a special provision of the Social Security Act called the educational training voucher. That can provide up to $5,000 worth of educational assistance for a youth who's leaving care if they're pursuing some type of post-secondary education. And those are very important supports when you combine them with Pell grants and some of the other grants that other children avail themselves of.
HANSEN: I understand you are a social worker in Wisconsin?
Mr. PECORA: Yes. I provided foster family care for a number of years there.
HANSEN: So what do the young people you work with tell you about what they needed? And how were you able to help them?
Mr. PECORA: Some of the most important lessons they've taught us and they taught me was the importance of a connection with a sibling, with a brother or a sister, with establishing good relationships with one or more of their birth family members, how important it was for them to maintain some tie to their birth family. And when that couldn't happen, our job was to really help them build a new family for themselves.
Mr. PECORA: And so family is very important. Were you able to help them in other ways?
Mr. PECORA: One of the most important lessons the youth taught me was to not give up on them, to set high but reasonable expectations for them. So they would - later on, they would say, you know, it's really important when you said, you know, you really have a knack for this kind of a reading assignment, or you really are good with people, have you thought about a job as a teacher? The youths remember these kinds of comments that adults make to them years later, when we've talked to them at 25 or 35 or 45.
HANSEN: Peter Pecora is the senior director of research at the Casey Family Programs. He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Thanks for your time.
Mr. PECORA: You're welcome.
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