Op-Ed

Safe housing for foster youth provides huge returns

The current national economic crisis generates daily news coverage focused on assigning blame, highlighted by finger-pointing and partisan politics. This distracts us from the real critical question: As we "re-set" and face the realities of our current economic climate, how do we continue to prioritize and protect our most vulnerable communities?

Since 2001, The Mockingbird Society has been laser-focused on improving outcomes for a big part of this population – adolescents and alumni of foster care. These are children who are taken from their homes due to abuse, neglect and abandonment and made legal dependents of the state. The Chapin Hall Mid-West Study – a longitudinal analysis of youth aging out of care – demonstrates the wisdom of investing in safe housing as youth transition to adulthood. According to the study, safe housing reduces criminal behavior, delays early parenting and improves the lives of youth aging out.

Beginning in 2006, the Legislature recognized this guiding principle and led the way in investing in youth who age out of care by passing a safe-housing program known as Foster Care to 21. Washington state’s forward-thinking program led to the first national child welfare reform act in more than a decade, known as the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. This landmark legislation provides a 50 percent federal match to all the states that provide safe housing to youth aging out of care. Due to the success and state dollars invested in current programs, Washington State is uniquely positioned to “opt-in” to the federal program, resulting in the continuation of an effective policy with no new state dollars.

But, will we take action and retain this cost-effective program and strengthen our future? Several national studies have demonstrated the cost savings to states, as well short and long-term benefit to the participating foster youth. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy cost benefit study of these programs showed that for every dollar invested in Washington’s Foster Care to 21 there is a $1.35 benefit to the taxpayer and $5.16 to the youth participants.

All of the evidence demonstrates youth who leave foster care without a safe, permanent family reveal consistent negative life outcomes. By contrast, youth who have a safe home are on a successful path to adulthood. So, despite the economic challenge, in the 2011 legislative session, The Mockingbird Society will work to ensure foster youth up to the age of 19 have access to safe housing (HB 1128 and SB 5245). The return on investment is clearly demonstrated for individuals and taxpayers.

Of all the challenges we face as Americans, perhaps none is more definitive then how we fulfill our social responsibility to our most vulnerable. And if, as a taxpayer, you hope for a return to responsible government and “put your tax dollars to work,” then look no further then the programs that have reduced youth homelessness by providing safe housing. I would like to thank our governor and legislative champions for leading this bi-partisan and forward thinking, cost-saving program. There is no room or cause for any “blame.” Only good can come from retaining the safe housing program and moving forward.

ABOUT THE MOCKINGBIRD SOCIETY

The Mockingbird Society is a leading advocacy organization that is dedicated to helping young people realize their potential, strengthen families and build a better society. We do so through three strategies: improving public policy, promoting innovative practice, and putting a human face on the pressing social problem of a broken foster care system.

Jim Theofelis, LMHC, MC, CDC, is the founder and Executive Director of the Mockingbird Society, www. mockingbirdsociety.org. He can be reached at jim@mockingbirdsociety.org.

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