Commentary: We must support foster youth after they exit system

Virginia has about 5,038 children in the foster care system. Out of those children, 2,856 of them are exiting out without a place to call home and a family to depend on. No direction to life, and their only source of help financially and guidance are terminated without consideration.

I am a mother who works with a human service company that counsels children with mental health disorders and their parents to prevent the children from being taken out of the home. I am a candidate for a master’s in social work and also a Shenandoah County resident. My neighbor is a foster mother who has taken in about 16 foster children and has adopted seven of them. Her reason for adopting the children was because she couldn’t watch them leave her house when they turned 18 without any support. Her statement had me searching for answers on what happens to foster youth who age out of the system.

Prior to this year, Virginia did not have any provision for youth exiting out of the foster care system — leaving the youth to fend for themselves and navigate through life. Youth who age out of foster care without any help end up in crime, have a higher rate in high school dropout, have a higher rate of homelessness and mental and health issues. According to www.vakids.org, it costs the state of Virginia $300,000 per youth in public assistance, which is $154.2 million per 514 youth.  Foster youth who exit from the system lose  their health care benefits, which means they have no access to mental health and physical health treatment. For youth who are prone to posttraumatic stress disorder, which is no fault of theirs, losing access to help is nothing but cruel.

A bill was introduced in Virginia that extends care for youth who age out of foster care until they turn 26. The bill covered housing, food and health care. Youth participating in the program would have to stay in school.  It would cost the state $4 million for all foster youth exiting the system this year to implement this program.

The bill was picked up at this year’s session but was not passed; rather, it was written into the budget for implementation. Because it was not passed as a bill, it only covers youth who will turn 18 this July and afterward through age 21, but doesn’t cover those who turned 18 before July 1.

Foster youth are our future leaders and and adults need to fight for them. I ask all of us to come together as a community and ask our lawmakers that we voted into power to pass House Bill 935 so that our community can have responsible future leaders. As a mother, I want to believe that if something happens to me, and my children end up in the foster system, they will have a chance at being successful.  Foster youth deserve support from the community.

Constance D. Sey is a Woodstock resident.