By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — A new Department of Human Services (DHS) program would allow youth to remain in foster care until they turn 21.
The voluntary program would allow participants to continue receiving foster care payments, health care and counseling after they turn 18.
They would be eligible to remain in the program if they are employed at least 80 hours per month, are in school or a job training program, or if they can’t work or attend school due to a medical condition.
Every year, around 600 youth age out of foster care, losing eligibility for funds that DHS officials say could help them transition into adulthood.
Of the state’s 14,000 foster care youth, 585 will be eligible for the program this year. DHS expects around 600 to enter the program each year, at an annual cost of $24,500 per participant.
Legislative fiscal analysts estimate that extending benefits would cost an additional $14.3 million per year.
But Dave Akerly, director of public relations for DHS, said funding wouldn’t be especially costly since the state will take advantage of new federal money for foster care beneficiaries.
According to Akerly, the federal government would cover about 65 percent of the costs, while the state would fund the remaining 35 percent.
“We’re not sure what the exact costs will be since it’s unclear at this point just how many people will participate in the program,” Akerly said. “Even at full participation, the federal funds make this program very manageable.”
Sarah Thibodeau, a 20-year-old student at Lansing Community College, said the program would provide her with $550 per month, money she needs to fulfill her educational aspirations.
“For me, it helps to not have to worry about a lot of the living costs,” Thibodeau said. “I can focus on school and my goals.”
Thibodeau, who has been in foster care since she was 11, said she hopes to use the benefits to transfer to a four-year university to study architecture, woodworking and interior design.
For Thibodeau, the program would help with more than just finances. Her foster care coordinator has helped her sign up for classes, find an apartment and apply for student loans.
Thibodeau said without the expected additional support, it would be impossible to continue her education.
“I’m in a really stable place right now where I feel like I can thrive. Without the program, I don’t know if I would be in the same place.”
Mary Chaliman of the department’s child welfare division said foster care youth transitioning into adulthood without a support system face much higher risks of substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment.
And Jane Zehnder-Merrell of the Michigan League for Human Services said helping foster youth avoid such problems is well worth the cost.
“Many of them don’t have the support system and they don’t have access to the resources to really succeed in the adult world,” Zehnder-Merrell said.
“What ends up happening is they often become homeless or they end up in the justice system,” Zehnder-Merrell said. “It would be smarter to give them the support so that they can succeed in college and in the adult world.”
A 2009 study by the University of Chicago found that extending foster care services leads to greater college success and higher lifetime earning potential for those that participate.
According to the study, foster youth in states that extend their programs are projected to receive bachelor’s degrees at double the rate of those elsewhere, from 10 percent to 20 percent.
They’re also projected to earn an average $72,000 more over the course of their lives.
By JON GASKELL