Leaders hopeful foster emancipation extension will become reality

Butler County Children Services Independent Living and Emancipation Coordinator Abby Sexton, right, talks about Trenae, during their annual graduation ceremony for emancipated youth on Thursday, June 25, 2015. Trenae has not only graduated from high school but recently graduated from Miami University. GREG LYNCH / STAFF
Butler County Children Services Independent Living and Emancipation Coordinator Abby Sexton, right, talks about Trenae, during their annual graduation ceremony for emancipated youth on Thursday, June 25, 2015. Trenae has not only graduated from high school but recently graduated from Miami University. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

Gov. John Kasich has recommended an annual $11 million match for a program now known as “Bridges” that extends the foster care emancipation age to 21 and provides housing and support to kids who would otherwise be on their own at age 18.

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House Bill 50 passed last spring and the governor signed it into law in June. When House Bill 50 was first introduced, the appropriation was $300,000 to plan and $4.5 million worth of state and federal funds to implement in 2017. In the version that passed 28 to 3 in the House Finance Committee, the new price tag was $550,000 for planning purposes and $24.5 million — $9.7 million state share — for implementation. The final bill noted financing would be determined in the budget Kasich revealed Monday.

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The federal government passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008 that allows the use of federal dollars to expand foster care. There are 26 other states that have adopted similar legislation.

Butler County Children Services Director Bill Morrison said he is gratified the governor and the legislature have backed this initiative, first making the bill a law and now providing a funding mechanism.

“It’s obviously hopeful, he put it in the budget. If he hadn’t put it in the budget then it wouldn’t have much of a chance of getting funding,” Morrison said. “The budget is always a lot of competing interests… It’s always a matter of priorities and it’s always hopeful to us that work at Children Services when we see our kids being a priority.”

Each year, more than 1,000 Ohio youth “age out” of foster care at age 18, in Butler County there are 56 youth who could potentially benefit from the new program. Bridges will include a package of programs to help these young people prepare for college or a career, as well as transitional housing options, including apartment programs, campus housing, and foster and host homes.

Mark Mecum, director of the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies (OACCA), said offering these young people this type of support does carry a hefty price tag but the alternative is more costly.

“The lifetime financial impact on society if we don’t support youth adequately when they age out of foster care is $300,000 per kid over their lifetime,” he said. “And what we’ve done in Ohio is a cost benefit study of what happens if we support kids the right way, through a program like House Bill 50, and that showed that over a 10-year time period while the program’s cost is significant the savings are quite significant as well. The total savings to taxpayers actually outweighs the total cost.”

Just because the governor plugged $11 million in his proposed budget doesn’t mean that funding will make the final cut in the biennial state spending plan. House Bill 50 passed unanimously in the Senate last year and by an 89 to 7 vote in the House. However there are newcomers to both houses. State Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, a Marysville Republican who was the chief sponsor of the bill, said she has her “work cut out” for her to ensure Bridges stays in the budget. Still, she is pleased Kasich backed funding the bill.

“It’s exciting, but the point is this is just a beginning, not an end,” she told the Journal-News. “There is so much work to be done in the foster care field. We’re hoping that through the budget process that appropriation will stay intact… We have 29 new members who just were sworn in in January who know nothing about this bill.”

Sen. John Eklund, a Republican from Munson Twp. who carried the measure through the Senate, was a bit more positive about the future of the Bridges program. In January eight new senators were sworn into office.

“I feel as confident as one can feel three days after the budget was rolled out,” he said. “Part of the concern with the financial side of it last year was that we were kind of in the middle of a budget cycle, the money was going to have to come from someplace and it was going to have to be in addition to what was already within the budget that we were living with. But I think now we’re beyond that, we’re in a new cycle.”

The program, which was formerly referred to as Ohio Fostering Connections, is expected to launch in late 2017 and will serve up to 3,000 eligible young adults.