ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state is trying to make it easier for older foster children to successfully enter adulthood.
A new program prepares foster children 14 and older to live independently ''rather than just losing these kids to the four winds,'' said Matthew Turner, independent living project coordinator for the state Division of Family and Youth Services. The program involves social workers, foster parents and residential care providers.
Up to 50 Alaska foster children ''age out'' of the system every year when they turn 18. Before now, the state would set them loose.
Now it can help cover college bills or pay for training at vocational schools. Generally, the state can continue to provide financial help for foster kids through age 20, as long as they are working toward independence and remain in state custody.
Among the first to take advantage of the program is Jessica Williams, 18, a freshman at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is one of about 375 teen-agers age 14 or older in Alaska's foster care system.
''I'm not ready to be on my own,'' Williams told the Anchorage Daily News.
Last summer, Williams was among 20 foster teens who bunked for five days at UAA for the state's first independent living conference, where they sampled campus life and covered skills like household budgets, apartment hunts and time management.
Now Williams is among the first group of Alaska foster children to receive a tuition waiver at the university. The state is paying for their room and board. This summer, she'll be speaking at the conference. She is thinking of becoming a dental hygienist.
The state also offers older foster teens some other rudimentary support.
Williams' health care is covered through Medicaid. Her DFYS caseworker, Abbi Henderson, provides her with vouchers for clothes and essential items like shampoo. She gets to travel Outside twice a year at state expense to visit a little brother.
Henderson was always accessible, by telephone or e-mail, Williams said.
Without the support, she said, ''I wouldn't know where to start.''
Before the new push, the state spent just $13,000 a year to help older foster children become independent, Turner said.
Through the federal Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, Alaska has $500,000 to spend this budget year and hopes for the same in years to come.
A bill now before the Legislature, HB 209, would allow the state to provide financial help to foster children even after they leave state custody, which it cannot do now.
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