A teenage student. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images).
Ohio kids who were in foster care in their late teens have had some of the worst outcomes in the United States by the time they reach 21, according to a federal survey conducted in 2018.
In a report released Wednesday, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio suggested some reforms aimed at improving those disquieting statistics. Among them is to better listen to the people who have actually gone through the system.
“The perspectives of youth who have experienced foster care or those who are currently in care are the missing piece in the design and improvement of systems and structures intended to serve children and their interests,” Tracy Najera, executive director of the group, wrote in a letter introducing the report.
If the 2018 survey by the U.S. Office of the Administration for Children and Families is any guide, Ohio foster children are greatly in need of help.
Surveyed when they reached 21, only 60% said they had a high school diploma or a GED. Forty-six percent said they had jobs. Just 12% said they were in school. And a whopping 37% — double the national average — said they had been incarcerated.
Each of those measures fell into the bottom 10% nationally. And two more — experiences with homelessness and lack of a connection to an adult — fell into the bottom 20%.
Even the rate of responding to the survey might point to the weakness of the Ohio’s foster system — at least in 2018. Just 16% responded, placing Ohio in the bottom 10% by that measure and miles behind Pennsylvania, which had a response rate of 100%, the report said.
“A survey response rate may represent the degree to which a state is able to reach and meet the needs of youth before their 21st birthday,” it said.
The report told the story of a high school freshman in foster care whose grades dropped and who became depressed when he was placed with an aunt whom he said abused him physically and emotionally. An older sister advocated for him, but he was still stuck for a time in placements with members of his extended family whom he feared, the report said.
It added that such problems could have been avoided.
“Imagine if (the teenager) had been able to voice his concerns with his placement and create a new plan within a system that prioritized his development and the relationships that are most important to him,” it said.
As reforms, the report proposes at a minimum conducting quarterly youth-experience surveys among foster children that ask:
- Were you comfortable in a foster home?
- Did you feel safe?
- Do you think other kids should be placed there?
- Did you receive a copy of the Youth Bill of Rights and do you believe they were respected or violated?
Those surveys and other warning signs such as youths running away from foster and group homes should be used in evaluating them, the report said.
To help facilitate changes, the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio is offering up a resource: others who have had negative foster-care experiences in the Buckeye State.
“Fortunately, in Ohio, there is an active community of young people who have been in foster care who are committed to being a part of transformation efforts,” the report said. “These young advocates survived maltreatment and are working to prevent it from happening to others. With their insights about ways to measure transformation, leaders in Ohio can evaluate whether efforts to transform the system are responsive to the needs of youth.”
In at least one important aspect, improvement already is being seen in Ohio, the report said.
Every year, about 1,000 “age out” of foster care when they turn 18 without becoming a permanent part of a family. Historically those kids have found themselves suddenly on their own, legally adults, but ill-equipped to navigate a complex world without a network of support on which to fall back. Unsurprisingly, that population has been shown to be more likely to be homeless, unemployed and incarcerated.
In response, Ohio in 2017 implemented the Bridges program, which provides housing and other assistance to young adults as they attend school or work between aging out of foster care and turning 18.
The Children’s Defense Fund cited an increase in participation in the program from 1,013 in 2019 to 1,582 in 2021. That’s a 56% jump, making it “a bright spot in Ohio’s outcome measures,” the report said.
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