LINCOLN – Two siblings from the Scottsbluff area spent much of their youth in the Nebraska foster care system, but had different lives.
Sarah Peters, 22, left the foster care system at 16 when a couple became her guardian. She lost their support at 19 because they adopted a baby, and she was no longer eligible for state medical assistance. She had to drop out of pre-med school because of a $10,000 hospital bill.
Her sister Amy, 23, was a ward of the state until 19, graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in December with a criminal justice degree and plans to go to law school. She had medical and housing assistance and a mentor until she was 21 through the Former Ward program with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.
Amy became a statewide training adviser for the foundation’s Project Everlast and testified about her and her sister’s experience at the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee hearing for Legislative Bill 216 on Thursday.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t fall on my face a couple times as well.”
Amy said wards of the state like Sarah and herself face a cliff at 19 of losing support services.
“It’s really just this all-of-a-sudden snap, you’re on your own.”
LB 216 would follow the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 by extending state support for foster youth to transition into society, from 19 years old to 21. It would have the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services provide housing and education assistance, Medicaid coverage and other services.
That doesn’t sit well with Thomas Pristow, director of the Nebraska DHHS. Pristow was the only one opposing the bill, of more than a dozen who testified. He said a 2012 analysis by Mainspring Consulting showed the extended support required in the bill would cost about $2.5 million annually.
Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln sponsored LB216 and told the committee she would work with the Nebraska DHHS, the Appropriations Committee and private entities that might want to invest in the program.
“We’ve heard from so many great and talented youth here today,” she said, adding that for every one of them, there are a couple others who are homeless, on drugs, in jail or they might have children who will end up in the same cycle of abuse and neglect that they came from.
She said this bill is for them.
Nineteen to 21-year-olds are at a different development stage than the current system provides for, said Doug Christensen, a vice-chair of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. The foundation’s Project Everlast supports wards of state after they reach 19.
He said data collected from the project showed 26 percent of participants had stable employment when the project started, and after two years, 53 percent did so. He said he’s always aware of the need for the data, “but once you’ve heard the stories from the voices you heard today, it has to be a pain. it breaks my heart to hear those stories.”
His own children weren’t ready to “face the world” at age 18 when they left for college, he said.
“I can’t imagine them being totally on their own at that point.”
Even at 30 to 40 years, “they’re not there yet,” he said.