Each year, 500 kids age out of foster care in our state, and at 18 years old are left to fend for themselves. Many of them end up homeless or committing crimes, but the legislature is now considering extending foster care to help them become productive adults.
Twenty-one-year-old Deonate Cruz attends community college while working part-time as an advocate and mentor for foster kids, a perhaps once unthinkable life for this former foster kid who bounced in and out of homes.
"Forty-plus different placements," Cruz said. "Up and down, no real connections in the beginning."
Cruz could have been like hundreds of kids in the state, who were left to fend for themselves when they aged out at 18. But instead he took part in a pilot program, extending foster care until age 21.
The study found that doing so increases the kids' lifelong earning power, delays early parenting, and prevents homelessness and criminal behavior.
"It kind of gave me a perspective on what I really wanted to do in life," said Cruz. "I enjoy working with the youth, the children and advocating. And it allowed me to gain some skills for myself."
Jim Theofelis, executive director for The Mockingbird Society, is advocating to give that option to all foster kids in the state.
"At 17 and half, they start worrying where will they be," said Theofelis.
Under proposed legislation, foster kids would qualify for the program ff they're in high school, or getting their GED, enrolled in college, in a job training program, if they work 80 plus hours a month, or have a medical condition that keeps them from working or being in school.
"If this youngster is becoming a taxpayer, earning a college degree, and not in the criminal justice system, not on public assistance, that's a huge return for the community as well," said Theofelis.
18 year old Mykel Daniels will get the support network she needs to attend community college.
"A lot of security," she said. "Being a young adult and trying to cope with life, 'cause it's hard. Because going into independence is really hard. I'm even struggling with that now.
Both the state Senate and the House are considering bills to extend foster care, which is projected to cost about two million dollars a year. Federal funding is already in place to match any funds the state puts into the program.