Bridging the gap to adulthood for foster youth

Bridging the gap to adulthood for foster youth

(Neb.) Young adults on the verge of aging out of the foster care system face an even more uncertain future than many of their peers but in Nebraska, those 19- to 21-year olds can receive extra guidance into adulthood.

The Bridge to Independence program gives the state’s foster youth phasing out of foster care means by which to successfully transition into adulthood. The program provides developmentally appropriate support and safeguards that allow young people to take chances and learn from their mistakes while in the program.

“Bridge to Independence enables us to provide resources that most young people inherently receive from their parents at this critical stage in their life,” Kerry Winterer, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. “Through our program, we hope to help former wards live better lives as they journey to adulthood.”

Options for foster kids as they phase out of foster care and attempt to navigate young adulthood can be slim, as many fall far behind in their schooling and must play catch-up later on. In Nebraska, only 42 percent of former foster youths finished high school by age 21 and only 48 percent had jobs at age 26, according to supporters of the program.

The independence program looks to turn some of those numbers around. Youths must be finishing high school, working toward a general equivalency diploma, enrolled in higher education at least part time or working part time or participating in a job-training program in order to remain eligible, unless medically unable.

A number of states have recently adopted similar programs.

Indiana, for instance, introduced an almost identical program in 2012 that extends benefits to transitioning foster youth through age 21. The Collaborative Care program provides young adults opportunities to live on their own and become more independent by teaching household skills such as cooking and budgeting as well as important life skills such as how to apply for and keep a job.

Both the Ohio and Wisconsin legislatures have taken notice and are considering legislation to provide similar additional support to young adults who have aged out of the foster care system.

In Nebraska, the Foster Care Review Office will assess participants’ cases every six months – as will the courts– to ensure that the kids are still on track.

Young adults who join the program will have help staying on the right path. They will have access to a number of resources and an individual independence coordinator who can answer questions and act as a guidance counselor of sorts when a child or teen is looking for advice or wants to talk out his or her goals.

The coordinators perform a number of tasks in the program. They help decide the best living situation for the child, be it living with a foster family, in a group home if necessary or on his or her own, likely with some sort of supervision. A monthly support payment is sent out to the child or foster home to help with housing or education costs.

In addition, a youth coordinator will help determine if the participant is eligible for Medicaid and if so, help apply for coverage. Under the Affordable Care Act, those who aged out of foster care are eligible for Medicaid until they are 26 years old and, in Nebraska, those who didn’t age out may still be eligible.

Participants are required to meet with their independence coordinators once a month but can do so more often if they choose.

The Bridge to Independence program replaced the state’s Former Ward Program, directed only at former foster youths who were continuing their education. The independence program is more flexible.

In addition to including job-training or employment as eligibility options, it also allows for reentry into the program until age 21 if a participant has to stop for any reason, whereas those in the previous ward program could not reapply if they took time out of college.

“As with all young adults at this stage in life, they are learning about making choices for their future,” Thomas Pristow, director of Nebraska’s Children and Family Services said in a statement. “Our independence coordinators will present them with counsel and discuss possible outcomes of their decisions, as parents would give their sons and daughters, but they will make their own decisions.”

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