Last Thursday, America’s seventh most populous state officially began enrolling older youth who wished to remain in foster care after the age of 18. Youth advocacy groups have voiced optimism that Ohio’s Bridges program could emerge as a model for the 25 states that have not yet extended foster care to age 21, delaying the age when youth emancipate into adulthood.
“Unlike some other states, Ohio did not ‘extend foster care,'” said Mark Mecum, CEO of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, in an e-mail to The Chronicle of Social Change. “It designed a distinctly new program tailored to young adults aging out of foster care.”
The state has allocated about $25 million per year to the program, which is expected to serve up to 2,500 in its first year, according to Mecum. About half of that is state funding, with the rest matched by federal funds available under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
The state established an advisory council to help design Bridges. The council included former foster youth, children services workers, foster care agency leaders, advocates and a juvenile court judge.
“Advocates and policymakers in Ohio studied other states’ extended foster care programs to identify best practices and lessons learned,” said Mecum, who also worked on the council.
“Stakeholders, through the development of an advisory council, took the time to do a careful plan for implementation and establish guiding principles and goals for the program,” said Jennifer Pokempner, child welfare policy director for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “They did this precisely because they did not want to just provide young people three more years of foster care, but wanted to provide supports that guide and teach young people, but also give them the opportunity to exercise their autonomy and decision making skills, building in the opportunity to make mistakes, and learn from them.”
Fostering Connections was signed into law in 2008, and offers states who extend foster care to 21 a matched reimbursement under Title IV-E, an entitlement that helps states with the cost of foster care.
Through a competitive bid process, the state contracted with Child and Family Health Collaborative of Ohio to oversee Bridges’ service delivery. According to Mecum, the arrangement marks the first time that a IV-E extension will be managed in a single statewide network.
Mecum said the available housing options for former foster youth who enroll in Bridges will include host homes, leased apartments, supervised community housing and college dormitories.
The rollout of Bridges was nearly two years in the making. In 2016, Ohio became the 25th state to establish a IV-E extension program when Gov. John Kasich signed Ohio Bill 50. Rhode Island, which actually had an early extended care program and shuttered it before Fostering Connections became law, could soon become the 26th state.
The number of youth in Ohio foster care rose from 11,877 in 2012 to 13,725 in 2016, a 16 percent increase, according to federal data. The number of Ohio youth whose parental rights have been terminated – the group of foster youth most at risk of aging out – increased by 20 percent, from 2,277 to 2,730.