By Jennifer Price
January 7, 2009 /The News Journal
But unlike her peers, Danielle has to worry about a lot more than finding a job or preparing for college.
When Danielle turns 18 this summer, she will age out of the state's foster care system. She'll need to find a place to live and a job to pay the rent -- all while caring for her newborn son.
Each year, about 100 Delaware children are in Danielle's position, forced to live on their own with little financial or emotional support when they become too old for the state's foster care system.
Last month, the nonprofit Delaware Children's Campaign released a report calling for more subsidized housing, reduced car insurance rates and a mentoring program.
"What are 17-year-old kids supposed to do? What is there for us? I'm willing to do the hard work, but where's the opportunity for me to do so?" said Danielle, who plans to go to Delaware Technical & Community College and wants to be a U.S. Army nurse.
Children's Campaign leaders and other child advocates want to see the state extend its oversight of foster care youths until they turn 21. This proposal -- Senate Bill 103 -- stalled in 2007 because of a dispute over its price and legal implications. Estimated to cost between $800,000 and $2.1 million, supporters acknowledge it is unlikely to pass soon given the state's current economic climate.
There are more than 1,500 children in Delaware's foster care system. More than a quarter of them are in long-term foster care, meaning they have not been adopted or reunited with their family. That high percentage was identified in a 2007 federal review of Delaware's system.
The problem is particularly acute with teenagers, who frequently jump from one foster home to another. Danielle, whose last name cannot be released because she is a minor, lived in four homes last year.
10 percent in prison
Once teenagers turn 18, they no longer are wards of the state. Last fiscal year, 102 children aged out. National studies show they are often unprepared for adult life and more vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and unplanned pregnancy.
Of the Delaware youths who aged out last fiscal year, 10 percent were in prison and 7 percent were homeless, according to the Children's Campaign's report "Our Children: Aging-out of Foster Care in Delaware."
The Children's Campaign recommends expanding the state's four independent-living programs to provide more assistance to those aged 18 to 21. The programs, with oversight by the Department of Family Services, have a budget of $817,060; $500,000 is from federal funds. So far this year, 245 children, ages 16 to 21, have benefited.
Youths who turn 18 before they finish high school can apply for a board extension, which provides funding to their foster care parents or group homes until graduation.
"When you switch homes so much, you often switch schools and can get behind," said Suzan Dougherty, an independent-living program director at Northeast Treatment Center in New Castle. "Many are left unable to finish high school."
Danielle entered foster care last year after she and her mother had irreconcilable differences. After living in three homes, she learned she was pregnant last summer and came to Bayard House -- the state's only licensed residential program for pregnant, at-risk teens -- in October.
At Bayard House, which is operated by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wilmington, she learned how to care for her child, who was born on Christmas. She plans to graduate from Dickinson High School in Milltown this spring, but can only can stay at Bayard until June -- two months before her 18th birthday.
Like every teen in foster care, Danielle was assigned an independent-living coordinator, who is responsible for teaching her life skills such as cooking and cleaning, managing money and applying for jobs.
But a vicious cycle awaits. Danielle has found waiting lists for government-subsidized housing are lengthy and most require applicants to be 18 and have employment and housing history. With an overflow of people looking for work, many employers have raised the minimum working age to 18. And auto insurance, which would allow her to drive to a job, is almost unaffordable.
Aiming to reverse the trend
West End Neighborhood House's Life Lines program provides both subsidized transitional and permanent housing for 32 youths with an additional 10 to 15 spaces coming this spring. Teens pay about 30 percent of their income toward a rent payment.
But it's not enough, said Rodney Brittingham, executive director of the Children's Campaign.
For 21-year-old Ivory Murray, the Partnering with Parents Life Lines Program has been a lifesaver.
After her mother abandoned her at 15, she slept in New Castle's Battery Park for several days until she entered foster care.
"My mom never had stability, so we were always either sleeping on other people's floors or had to grab a trash bag with all of our clothes in it and whatever we carried is what we could have. We stayed in and out of shelters, family members' places and conditions you would never believe," Murray said.
Two years after giving birth to her son, Murray left her foster home and eventually landed a spot in the Partnering with Parents Program. Murray said that allowed her to focus on school, work part-time and have stability.
According to the children's campaign, 60 percent of youths leaving the state's foster care system have no training.
West End Neighborhood House is trying to reverse that trend by providing job training and employment placement, said Paul Zalistro, West End's executive director. Zalistro plans to announce a new initiative -- including a funding donation -- Friday.
Tim Schembs, 31, who entered Pennsylvania's foster care system as a teenager, now mentors Delaware foster care youths. Schembs, who works in J.P. Morgan's accounting department, said there is a great need for foster care children to have mentors who have been in their shoes.
"They need someone who they can relate to, someone that can show them that if they work hard and use the resources they have, they can make something out of nothing," he said.
Contact Jennifer Price at 324-2855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.