Older children, sometimes suffering the effects of years of neglect, family chaos or institutionalization, now comprise the bulk of Maryland's foster care cases, yet special services for them are virtually nonexistent, according to Maryland officials.
The lack of services -- a growing national problem that has sparked at least one lawsuit -- hampers the juveniles' abilities to live independently after they leave state custody. And social workers say they are finding a link between the lack of these programs and the growing number of homeless people as youths released from state programs find that they cannot make their own way.
Of the 5,442 children in foster care in Maryland, 55.8 percent are age 13 or older, and more than 25 percent of them are 17 or older, according to the most recent complete figures. Among these older children, nearly a quarter have been in foster care for at least 10 years.
Yet the state has no formal policy on preparing such children to be financially or emotionally independent when they are released from foster care at age 18, or 21 if they remain in school. Such children, who may have been moved from foster home to foster home for years, may have no idea how to budget, buy groceries or even use a bus, let alone find an apartment or job. Such skills, critical for anyone nearing adulthood, are often absent because of these juveniles' chaotic childhoods.
Said Joy Duva, director of child welfare services for Maryland's Department of Human Resources, "There is not a standard coordinated set of services for them. That's what we're working on right now . . . . I'd have to say they need a lot more services, and we're still struggling with what those services are."
Currently, Duva said, any preparation that adolescents get comes from individual social workers or foster parents. About half a dozen residential facilities in Maryland offer intensive preparation and counseling, but together have room for only 50 juveniles.
Duva's comments came at a conference held in Baltimore last week that focused on the special needs of older children nearing release from state custody. Experts from around the region told the group of more than 200 social workers, administrators and activists that the problem of finding appropriate services for older children is a national one.
"I think there's a critical shortage of services for adolescents . I don't think it's addressed at all," said William Griffith, a consultant and director of a North Carolina-based social workers association.
Officials in Virginia and the District say their situations also mirror national trends. As of June, Virginia officials had 6,101 children in foster care, 31 percent of them 16 or older. Officials in Virginia also have a patchwork of arrangements for older children, including some residential facilities and some special counseling services. But such services are not required by state policy, and they vary from county to county, according to Dorothy Ansell, a consultant and teacher from Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work, who is assisting Virginia is setting up new programs.
D.C.'s child and family services office reports that 2,001 children are in foster care in the District, but officials could not provide a breakdown by age. The city has 40 beds in a residential program for adolescents, however, and a larger nonresidential counseling program.
A counselor from a Hyattsville home called Starting Over, which takes referrals from state agencies, described a girl who recently used the facility's services. The girl, a victim of neglect and sexual abuse, was repeatedly removed from her home in Prince George's County and put in foster care, only to be returned home for short periods when social workers thought conditions had improved. Finally, when she turned 16, she was arrested for shoplifting, and a court sent her to Starting Over.
There, workers discovered an angry girl who was alternately depressed and aggressive with peers and coworkers, a girl who lacked self-confidence and saw no reason to continue her education. While at Starting Over she found a job as a nurse's assistant, and she discovered a talent for budgeting and planning. Although the girl subsequently returned home, counselors at Starting Over, with whom she maintains frequent contact, said she feels stronger and more in control of her life.
Griffith noted at the conference that most adolescents need some life preparation, because even when they do return home they usually stay only briefly.
Moreover, he said, policymakers are discovering a connection between the problem of homelessness and that of young people sent into the world without adequate preparation. A 1984 study in Nashville revealed that of an estimated homeless population of 15,000, at least 800 persons aged 13 to 18, many of whom had been in state custody, were living on the streets.
And this summer in New York City, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that young people may no longer be discharged from foster care programs without supervision and a place to live. His decision came in response to a class action lawsuit brought by six homeless young men who had been living in subway stations, men's shelters and Times Square doorways after their release from New York's foster care system.
Griffith said the problem has arisen as foster care caseloads nationally have dropped because fewer young children are entering the system. People who in the past might have given up their chilren now tend to keep them, and socials workers, in response to federal law, now emphasize finding ways to get the youngest children out of state care quickly.
But public agencies are left to care for harder-to-place, more troubled older children who may have spent their lives being moved from place to place. Such children need not only job training but also help in forming the emotional ties most young people take for granted.
Said conference participant Esther Thrasher, who noted that she had spent much of her life in foster care, "Foster care is bad enough, but the transition to young adulthood is worse. During those years there was no one to talk to . . . and what about the good things you want to share with someone? Who do you invite to your college graduation? Who do you invite to your wedding?"