Many young people look forward to turning 18 and acquiring the independence of legal adulthood. But for those without families, no strings attached can mean no safety net.
'If you end up in custody at age 14, the odds are you will remain in custody to age 18.'
Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services Independent Living Program coordinator
When teens in foster care turn 18, the state stops supporting them. Without families of their own to assist the transition, many are ill equipped to support themselves.
On the central Kenai Peninsula, seven or eight young people will graduate or, as social service providers call it, "age out" from foster care this year.
In the past, they would have been on their own.
However, this year a new program, the Independent Living Program from the state Division of Family and Youth Services, is being set up to help them. The coordinator, Matthew Turner, said Kenai is a priority site for the program.
"My job is to focus on youth in our foster system who will be aging out. My job is to help them become self-sufficient," he said.
Turner recently visited Kenai to spread the word about the new program and solicit community involvement. He plans to help start a central peninsula task force to address the young adults' needs.
"I think it would do a lot of good," he said.
"I think the most effective stuff is done small scale at a personal level."
His program will be able to assist with information and grants.
Bill Galic, a supervisor at the Kenai DFYS office, said the central peninsula has more teen-agers than usual in its foster system. That cluster reflects past staffing problems at the agency.
"The Kenai office was really pretty dramatically understaffed," he said.
In the early 1990s, workers were handling twice the recommended case load and could not pursue adoptions. Legislative and funding changes since 1997 have eased the crunch.
"These kids are now getting moved through," Galic said. "But there is that group of older kids for whom it is kind of too late."
The central peninsula has not had a good independent living program for these youths for a long time. The DFYS office here has tried to help by arranging for some to remain on state support until age 20. The new program will be welcome, he said.
Several organizations have expressed a tentative interest in participating and will look into issues such as funding, he said.
The state's new Independent Living Program grew out of a national problem.
Galic and Turner cited studies showing that most young adults return to their families repeatedly from age 18 through their early 20s before they are able to support themselves consistently. The average age of full independence in the United States is now 23.
Studies show that many young people coming out of the foster care system are unprepared to function as productive, independent adults and lack vital family support. They disproportionately fall into destructive social patterns such as crime, substance abuse, unwed pregnancy, unemployment, homelessness and lack of education.
The problems are linked to the lack of stable and suitable families to teach them appropriate life skills.
"Those kids can really flounder out there," Galic said.
Alaska has no state data to compare with national trends, because until now it lacked resources to track what happens to its foster children.
"We really don't know," Turner said.
"At DFYS, they kind of disappear at age 18 from our files."
The state of Alaska has about 2,000 minors in its custody. Most are young children who will return eventually to their birth parents or find new families through adoption. But about 18 percent stay in foster care.
"If you end up in custody at age 14, the odds are you will remain in custody to age 18," he said.
Last year, 42 aged out of the system statewide.
In Alaska, they face extra challenges, Turner said.
"It seems well over half our kids have some fetal alcohol issues," he said.
In addition, they have an unusual situation caused by the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program. While they are wards of the state, the dividends go into trust accounts. When they turn 18 and are released from custody, they receive lump sum checks of all those dividends, plus interest, which can add up to a substantial amount.
For many, it is a chance for a spree that lasts for a few weeks. And then they end up destitute in a homeless shelter, Turner said.
"A lot of these kids have never been shown how to manage money," he said.
Funding for the state to aid this group just became available last year. At the end of 1999, Congress passed the Foster Care Indepen-dence Act, which reformed funding for young people in transition. Related federal funding for Alaska jumped from $13,000 to $500,000.
DFYS hired Turner in July to launch the Independent Living Program essentially from scratch. He organized a statewide conference of service providers that month and has been traveling the state researching needs and options.
Several promising projects are in the works, he said.
The University of Alaska has granted five tuition waivers available for students who were in foster care. DFYS is working on adding meals and housing to the college package.
Teens in state custody will travel to Anchorage for two special sessions.
One will be an annual independent living institute at the University of Alaska Anchorage, featuring workshops on practical skills such as cooking, tenants' rights and buying a car. It is based on a successful program from North Dakota.
The other will be a weekend of computer training. Participants will learn office software and basic computer set up and operations. At the end, they get to keep the computer.
His program also is pursuing apprenticeships, job skills training and housing assistance.
"It looks like in a couple months we'll have more good news," Turner said.
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