Advocates: Extending foster care to age 21 could foster successful adults

— A law that went into effect Sunday allows young adults who have been in foster care in North Carolina to continue receiving services until age 21.

Previously, the more than 10,000 foster children in the state aged out of the system whenever they turned 18.

“I think this will give our young people more flexibility to get into that role of transitioning into adulthood better,” said Marcella Middleton, a former foster child who lobbied state lawmakers to pass the Foster Care Family Act.

North Carolina is now among a number of states participating in the federally funded program, which began in 2008.

The Foster Care Family Act is designed to offer stability in what can be turbulent years. Anyone who was in the foster care system at age 18 can remain there or can return during the subsequent three years, and counselors will be assigned to them to help with life decisions.

“Just because you’ve reached 18 doesn’t mean you’re fully independent,” said Kevin Kelley, head of the Child Welfare Services section of the state Department of Health and Human Services. “How many of us were ready at 18 to be an independent adult?”

Under the program, those staying in the foster care system must be enrolled and attending class at a university, community college, vocational training program or job training program or be working at least 80 hours a month.

Foster care payments will help with living expenses, Kelley said.

“We know this won’t be the end all and be all they need, but it’s a start,” he said.

Middleton said the extra support will be critical to many young adults.

“At 18, your brain is still trying to develop,” she said. “They’re so stuck in survival mode, and that’s there every day. So, you miss out on so many different things you need to be a successful adult.”

Middleton went into the foster care system when she was 2 years old and had been in 16 foster care homes before she turned 18.

“It’s really difficult, and you feel like you don’t really belong anywhere,” she said. “My foster home wasn’t always a place I wanted to be or go.”

Now 24, she has a degree in social work and is an advocate for others in the foster care system. She said the Foster Care Family Act will give some of North Carolina’s most vulnerable young adults a shot at success in life.

“It’s important for the community to support our young people,” she said. “If that had been there when I was (in the system), I think some of the stresses I had on top of me would’ve been lessened.”

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.