Child advocates asked Nebraska lawmakers Thursday to extend state services to youths who are pushed out of foster care because of age limits.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The public advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed urged the cutoff age for support services be raised to 21; currently, the cutoff is 19.
Nebraska already offers a program for former wards of the state, but a growing number have been denied in recent years. Others were unaware that state services were still available once they aged out, according to a survey of former Nebraska state wards.
Advocates told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday that some youths who aged out of foster care in Omaha headed straight to homeless shelters.
The former ward program offers a monthly stipend and Medicaid coverage for young people who are pursuing a college degree. Child advocates say a 2008 federal law allows states to qualify for federal matching dollars if they extend the age limit, and imposes fewer restrictions than the current state program. An extension would equate to Nebraska paying an estimated $2.7 million to $3.1 million a year - lower than earlier estimates - and trigger the federal match.
Lawmakers convened the hearing as part of a study requested by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill. She said extending the services could reduce the need for other government services in the future.
"If they don't have health care through the state already, then they might have conditions and end up needing to go to hospitals and being on Medicaid anyway," she said at a news conference before the hearing.
"It means unintended pregnancy. Half of the young women who age out of the system who don't have support end up pregnant, and so then their children are on our rolls. It means not getting the same level of education that they could otherwise get, and being tax-paying citizens instead of people who need social support."
The number of youths who either aged out or were discharged without finding a permanent home has been steady recently, with 321 reported in 2011 and 367 in 2007. But the percentage of youths denied access to the state's former ward program has increased, from 4 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2010, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Amy Peters said she joined the former state ward program after she turned 19, which helped cover her housing and health care costs while she went to school. But Peters, who was in foster care from age 13 through 18, said she considers herself lucky.
"I knew I had to remain in college," said Peters, who now works with foster care youths through Omaha-based Project Everlast. "Times got tough, and to be honest, I struggle academically and almost dropped out at one point." But, she said, a community organization enrolled her in an on-the-job training program that allowed her to continue classes.
Sarah Helvey, Nebraska Appleseed's child welfare program director, said other youths who age out of the foster system often end up on public aid programs as adults because they lack a support system to help them survive.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)