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Legislators now must weigh those findings with the predicted cost of scaling up the program to cover every young person about to age out of the system — including those with part-time jobs, debilitating medical conditions or criminal records.
The Children’s Administration, which monitors foster youth, estimates that price tag at $23.5 million over the next two years; a figure described as "eyebrow-raising" by Senate Human Services and Corrections Chair Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.
But advocates who support extending benefits say that the $23.5 million figure is wildly inflated and fails to take matching federal funds into account.
Two years ago, for example, the legislature inched toward extending coverage by allowing foster youth who were completing high school to retain their benefits. The cost for the 510 young people who opted in was $4.3 million for one year, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. Much of the difference between that amount and the proposed budget for the program lies in the larger number of youth who would be served, said DSHS Spokeswoman Chris Case.
Last year, lawmakers again loosened the purse strings, extending benefits to young people who had entered college or vocational training. While the department does not yet have a total expenditure for that cohort, the price for letting foster youths make their way, solo, is well documented.
Nationally, 65 percent drop out of high school, and at least one in 11 become homeless. A study of youth leaving foster care in the Midwest found that 20 percent of young women had received welfare benefits by age 21 and 63 percent were surviving on food stamps. By age 24, 81 percent of young men had been arrested and 25 percent were homeless.
Statistics like this are hard to ignore. But state social workers, while agonizing over the fate of their 18-year-olds, worry that monitoring them for another three years could create unmanageable caseloads.
Of the 565 average foster youth who age out annually in Washington, those with criminal records may be among the most vulnerable, and most difficult, for legislators and the public to support. Most are currently ineligible for extended benefits. Yet very few have even a high school diploma. Saddled with criminal records, and without an education or any means of financial support, the likelihood of their return to prison is high.
Rep. Mary Helen Roberts (D-Lynnwood), who has championed the House bill extending benefits across the board, understands this, as do her colleagues. The great unknown is the state Senate.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” she said. “But this is obviously going to cost dollars, and there is such uncertainty around what the Senate is doing.”
Lane will be watching. Now 24, she has returned to school and is pursuing a degree in communications. She says she wants to be “a voice for the voiceless.”
“I know when you’re 18, you’re an adult, but learning how to take care of yourself and prepare for college, that stuff takes time,” she said. “And I do think it’s pretty interesting that all this stuff happened to me between those ages, 18 to 21.”
InvestigateWest reporter Claudia Rowe joins host Steve Scher on KUOW’s Weekday program on Friday Feb. 15 to discuss foster youth aging out. 94.9 on the FM dial, or www.kuow.org.
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