By Ferrell, Finessa
State Legislatures , Vol. 30, No. 9
In some ways, Risa Bejarano was a typical college sophomore. She worried about finding a place to live, getting a car and balancing school and work--all the things that trouble most college students.
But in other ways, Risa was different. Separated from her brothers and sisters at age 9 because of abuse, Risa grew up in a dozen foster homes. Nevertheless, she was the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and she did so with honors. She earned several scholarships for college.
Even so, Risa encountered difficulties that many former foster youth face: renting an apartment with no parent to co-sign a lease; finding money for a security deposit; getting to work and school in Los Angeles without a car. With no family to fall back on, Risa had to make it alone.
After a year of college, Risa had no place to live during the summer of 2004. Like many college students, she had a part-time job, but needed a way to get there. She spent her savings on a car, which left no money for a security deposit.
On June 5, 2004, Risa Bejarano was found murdered, shot to death next to the car that was her home.
A half million children and youths are in foster care. Most will reunite with their biological families; some will be adopted or find permanent guardians. About 20,000 youths, deemed legal adults at age 18, will emancipate or "age out" of the system each year.
These youngsters face daunting challenges. Four years after leaving foster care, 46 percent have not finished high school, 25 percent have been homeless, 42 percent have become parents and fewer than 20 percent are completely self-supporting.
Most kids at 18 have community and family supports they take for granted. They have a relative who can lend them money or give them a place to live. They have a parent who can cover them on health and car insurance policies or co-sign loans. They may have teachers or friends who offer guidance and emotional support.
Many foster youths lack these supports and relationships. Frequent moves among foster homes disrupt friendships, school and community ties. Constantly changing circumstances and lack of positive relationships with caring adults lead to feelings of abandonment and loss of control, as well as hostile, "acting out" behavior. As a result, foster kids are likely to have special physical and mental health needs.
State and federal policymakers are responding to a growing body of research that indicates youths leaving foster care are among the country's most vulnerable young people. In 1999, Congress enacted the John C. Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program, which doubles funding to states to create and expand independent living services to former foster youths up to age 21.
For example, Iowa now begins planning for educational and other independent living needs before youths leave care.
"It is important to make services to foster care youth seamless" says Representative Dave Heaton. "We passed legislation that requires, beginning at age 16, the county to be involved in the individual education plans of kids about to emancipate. That way, the county knows what services are needed and are planning to provide them."
The Chaffee act also allows states to extend Medicaid to former foster care youths until they reach 21. A few states, including Arizona, have exercised this option. Former Arizona Senator Ruth Solomon has been a leader in state foster care policy for the past decade. "Stable health care is a critical piece of fostering self-sufficiency. We want to encourage kids to pursue higher education and get job training," sire says, "but health care is a critical piece of that." Unfortunately, even in states where Medicaid benefits are available, emancipated young people report that they are unaware of them and have difficulty knowing precisely how to go about receiving these services. …