The state has been Mufasa Abdulbasil’s guardian for nearly 10 years, seeing to his needs for everything from food and shelter to clothes for school. But unless he goes to college when he turns 18–something he’s not sure about now–he’ll be on his own.
“It’s really scary to think about,” said the 16-year old foster child living in Stratford. “Where am I going to get the money from to pay for everything?”
Mufasa is not alone. About 450 abused or neglected Connecticut teens “age out” of the Department of Children and Families’ custody each year without ever finding a permanent family. That’s about 15 percent of all children who leave the system, one of the highest rates in the country according to Fostering Connections, a non-partisan think tank on child-welfare agencies.
But that may soon change. DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said she is looking into whether it makes sense for the state to extend services for children until age 21, and ask the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to split the cost.
“We are looking into it,” Katz said Monday following a forum with foster children on their experiences with DCF. Katz said the idea sounds promising, but before she commits to it she is “making sure there are no unintended consequences.”
Advocates from Connecticut Voices for Children, which hosted the forum at the State Capitol, said they have done the research and it makes sense to continue providing housing, counseling, monthly stipends for necessities and other benefits to children up to the age of 21.
“This is fair. The state shouldn’t stop being their parents the day they reach 18,” said Jake Siegel, a policy fellow at Voices.
Now only full-time students are supported by DCF after they turn 18–about 700 young people currently. But many children leaving DCF never make it to college, and only 6 percent nationwide ever actually graduate, according to a University of Chicago study.
Rohan Brown, a foster child who attends Mitchelll College in New London, told Katz few foster children stay in care after 18 because many don’t know how to navigate through the system to get their college paid for.
“It’s not being fully utilized,” he said. “A lot of things are hidden.”
To become eligible for funding from HHS, the state would need to extend benefits to young people between 18 and 21 who either work 80 hours a month, are in a post-secondary or vocational school full- or part-time, or are unable to work or go to school because of a medical condition.
Six states have extended these benefits to this population already, according to Fostering Connections.
“It’s an opportunity to draw on federal dollars to do something some states were paying for already or wanted to do,” said Hope Cooper, the vice president for public policy at Fostering Connections. “The outcomes for children that leave the system without services [at 18] are not favorable.”
The University of Chicago report says that nearly 40 percent of teens who aged out of their state’s custody have since been homeless. Only half were working, and 81 percent of males had been arrested.
Responding to those concerns, Joette Katz wrote an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant explaining the future for teens approaching 18 years old.
“Public policy favors providing DCF services to young adults (ages 18-21) who were in DCF care before turning 18, as would a natural parent. That is, if young adults follow the rules, they can count on added support from DCF,” she wrote, noting that only includes those in school full-time. “So, to answer the advocates’ concerns, there may indeed be young adults who do not qualify for DCF services under current law. … DCF does not have an endless pot of money. Every dollar allocated to this agency is earmarked to provide a service to children and families.”
But advocates are hoping this federal pot of money to push back the age that children remain eligible for services will change her mind.
“It’s absolutely a common sense decision,” said Jamey Bell, the executive director of Voices. “It makes fiscal sense.”
State Rep. Diana S. Urban, the co-chairwoman of the Children’s Committee, agrees.
“You can either pay now and make sure our kids get the support and services they need or pay later,” she said. “We’ve gotta man up. … It pays off keeping them off of unemployment, out of jail, the list goes on and on.”
Cecilia Fiermonte, director of child welfare policy for the Alliance for Children and Families, said keeping this vulnerable population in the system an extra year or two could be exactly what’s needed for many foster children to transition effectively out of state custody.
“It gives them a leg up and keeps them off the streets,” she said of the children in states that have taken the federal government up on this money. A new waiver approved by Congress could give states more flexibility where they spend federal reimbursements, which could include for this population.
For Mufasa it would provide some comfort.
“If I don’t go to college, literally I am an adult overnight and on my own,” he said.