WSAZ Investigates: Fixing foster care, study shows children in Ohio lagging the nation

Published: Dec. 18, 2018 at 11:26 PM EST
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Some of the most vulnerable children in our area are falling behind at staggering rates, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the transition from foster care to adulthood.

The first-of-its-kind report shows that Ohio teens falling behind.

By age 21, only 43 percent of former Ohio foster children have a high school diploma or GED, according to the data. That’s compared to 76 percent of former foster youths nationwide. Ohio lagged Kentucky and West Virginia where 80 percent and 72 percent, respectively, of former foster children had a high school diploma or equivalent by age 21.

While the statistics are startling, they don’t come as a big surprise to Ohio’s Executive Director of Necco, Gregory Thompson. Necco is a foster care agency based on building families.

Thompson says there are many systemic issues with Ohio’s system, starting with how it's structured.

Ohio operates on a county-by-county system, rather than a statewide system like Kentucky and West Virginia.

“We call it 88 states because they all act differently and independently of one another,” Thompson said. “They don't communicate or even share resources at all.”

It’s problematic for teen children, especially those in southern Ohio.

Thompson says the resources are drastically different by county, so a child who lives in a county like Hamilton, Franklin and Cuyahoga will often receive double or triple the resources of a child in southeast Ohio.

“For a child in Ohio, because of the county-based system, your fate is predetermined based on what county you're born in,” Thompson said.

The county-based system naturally benefits larger counties.

“As they (foster youths) begin to age they’re not given independent living services,” Thompson said. “Children in this area don’t have access to additional foster care funds or clothing vouchers or college assistance. They just lack a lot of funding.”

It becomes more burdensome for teenagers aging out of foster care.

Historically in Ohio, a child left the system on the day of their 18th birthday.

“That's the rudest possible birthday you could imagine,” Thompson said. “Gathering your belongings in a trash bag and essentially being told good luck … that is not unusual and that happens over and over.”

Necco tries to work with families to keep children past their 18th birthday but Thompson says with no support from the county or state, it’s not feasible for every family.

“This is a practice that has really been a detriment to Ohio's children, and I think a central reason why the statistics have been so grim,” Thompson said.

“At 18, you’re all alone in a big scary world with your items in a trash bag ... it's daunting,” Thompson said. “So it's hard to finish school, it's hard to get a job, it's hard to be anything other than homeless.”

Thompson points out that most children are not ready to take on the world at 18, let alone a child without a family who has likely experienced trauma throughout their childhood.

“It's costing us as taxpayers much more in terms of trying to fix the problem when these 18-year-olds are having to do drastic things, so there’s human trafficking issues, criminal issues, drug issues. There are societal problems that we all have to face because we've not set our children up for success.”

Thompson says there is hope for the future with newly created program, Bridges to Success. That program is a statewide program, launched this year, that aims to “bridge the gap” for foster youths entering adulthood. The program would allow foster parents to continue to care for children until age 21 (the norm throughout most of the country, according to Thompson).

Necco is a provider of Bridges to Success. Thompson expects big things out of the program, that draws statewide funding, but says more people need to get on board.

“It’s so new, many local counties aren’t invested in it yet,” Thompson said.

He hopes the program will also bridge the gap between Ohio and the rest of the country, but he says Bridges alone will not solve every problem.

Thompson says levies are greatly benefiting portions of the state and would benefit southeast Ohio. Forty-four out of 88 counties have levies for children services.

“These are taxpayers that have said we care about our children enough, we're willing to pay,” Thompson said.

In our region, Scioto and Vinton counties have levies for children services. Vinton County is a part of South Central Ohio Job and Family Services, which includes Ross and Hocking counties.

Lawrence, Gallia, Jackson and Meigs counties do not have a levy.

Above all else, Thompson says the biggest difference in a child’s life is a loving, trusted adult. He would know.

“I grew up like the children we serve,” Thompson said. “I’m trying to give children like me a chance.”

While the resources are not bountiful in southern Ohio, Thompson says the hearts of their foster parents are.

Leigh Ann Baker, longtime foster parent and adoptive mother of six, strives to keep her children from falling into a group of statistics. She does that by treating them like her own children.

“My kids have known they were adopted for a long time and that's not a bad thing it's something to be proud of … you know, I got to pick them,” Baker said. “Whether they're adopted or still in foster care, treat them like they're your kids, treat them like you would treat any other kid who you would have given birth to.”

Baker says parenting can be challenging, but it’s important to focus on each child’s needs.

“You try to do whatever you can, whether it be a different doctor or a different therapist or making special time just for that one child or whatever it takes … you just do it until you find something that works,” Baker said.

Brittany Bolen knows the importance of having a trusted adult to count on.

“I first got put in foster care when I was 13,” Bolen said. “Me and my mom were homeless. We ran away from an abusive family.”

Bolen says the anticipation of her 18th birthday was terrifying.

“I didn’t know if I was going to finish high school, I didn’t even think there was a chance for college, and honestly it was very scary,” Bolen said. “It’s still very scary.”

Bolen was one of the lucky ones, with gracious foster parents who kept her past her 18th birthday.

At 28, she still struggles with anxiety and depression from her past and thinking about what could have happened.

“It still scares me, like I love my children and I have a great job, I love my husband but I don’t think any of this would have been able ... none of this would have happened if I would’ve got kicked out when I was 18,” Bolen said.

Bolen says she is “beyond grateful” for her foster parents.

“I had family that abused me but then I had these strangers that loved me as if I was one of their own,” Bolen said. “It was amazing.”

Necco is always seeking new foster parents.