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The Fight to Make Well-Being a Foster Child's Right

Roughly 4,000 foster youth age out of California's foster care system every year. For most their 18th birthday is not so much a day of celebration as one of total isolation.
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In the twilight of his Presidency, George W. Bush signed The Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act of 2008, marking a fundamental shift in the priorities of Child Welfare in this Country. On Tuesday a subcommittee of the Congress' Committee on Ways and Means will convene to discuss the law's lagging implementation.

For the past three years, I have been a mentor and friend to two 18-year-old boys who both spent much of their childhoods in LA County's rambling foster care system.

Roughly 4,000 foster youth age out of California's foster care system every year. For most their 18th birthday is not so much a day of celebration as one of total isolation. Already separated from their biological families by death or abuse or neglect, at 18 the system turns most out -- leaving many with only frazzled wits to face an uncertain future.

Fostering Connections offers states matching funds to extend foster care till 21 and has placed requirements on the public Child Welfare departments across the country to notify kin if a child is taken into state custody, increase efforts to keep siblings together, enhance health care standards and keep kids from bouncing from school to school even if they are bouncing from group home to foster home and back again.

Until Fostering Connections, Child Protective Services' overriding priority was making sure children were saved from abuse, neglect and dangerous living conditions. What the law makes clear is that safety is -- in and of itself -- an insufficient goal, and compels foster care agencies to do what they have never been legally mandated to do before: provide foster children lasting connections with loving adults and increase their overall well-being.

Despite the importance of this law, ossified state and county departments of child protective services have done little to see it implemented and states that have gone as far as draft implementation legislation have been railroaded by a buckling economy.

For the young men I know, provisions like extension of care can be the difference between the abject and the edifying. For John, whose case was terminated by the department on Christmas Eve of 2008, two months after his 18th birthday, life is out of control. Six months ago he left Los Angeles and his then six-month-old son to try anew with his sister in Montana. Four months later he had burned his bridges there and had impregnated his new girlfriend.

For Chris, who knows John from when they were both 15 years old and living in the same South Central group home, life is different because he was among one of a handful of foster youth who have their "emancipation" stayed, by entering into what are called transitional housing programs. Staying in the system has given him the housing and stability to successfully land a job at a fried chicken restaurant. On Wednesday I am taking him to get his driver's license.

The difference for these two young men is that one was allowed to stay within the system while the other was forced to languish without.

If the federal law was a reality on the ground, every dollar states spend on supporting youth like Chris past his 18th birthday is matched by a dollar from the feds. But for states to receive the funds they need to pass implementation legislation. In California Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass pushed through complicated and essential legislation to ensure the money.

Unfortunately the current budget crisis has put those funds on hold till 2011, though they were meant to flow in 2010. That means one more year that a young man like John isn't afforded the same opportunity as his peer and friend Chris.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who introduced the bill back in '08, will hold a hearing on the law's implementation tomorrow. The clear message to states during that hearing must be that while the economy has hampered efforts to speed implementation, the commitment to seeing it through cannot falter.

Otherwise John's story will continue to be more common than Chris'.