LINCOLN — After seven years in Nebraska's foster care system, John Thompson didn't feel ready to be out on his own.
The system pushed him out anyway when he hit his 19th birthday.
Four weeks later, he's still trying to find his way.
“I'm unemployed and worried about the direction of my future,” Thompson said Thursday.
He is getting support through one of Nebraska's few programs aimed at helping struggling youths get launched into adulthood.
That program is funded with federal housing dollars.
Speaking at a press conference, the former Lexington resident said the state should offer similar services and supports for all young people aging out of foster care.
“Extending services and supports to (age) 21 would provide many youth with the standard of support they would receive from their parents,” Thompson said.
He and other former foster children joined State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln in urging state lawmakers to extend foster care services on a voluntary basis to older teens.
“We need to do what we can to provide a net for these young people,” McGill said.
About 300 Nebraska youths every year ''age out'' of foster care or are discharged to live on their own before turning 18.
Advocates told members of the Health and Human Services Committee that Nebraska has some services for those youths but that there are significant gaps.
A program for former wards provides help to only about one in three, and only while they are in college.
Youths must be 19 to get into the program. They must apply before leaving foster care and cannot get back in if they take time out of college.
Sarah Helvey, with the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, said the state has an opportunity under a recent federal law to offer more comprehensive and flexible services to young adults up to age 21.
Those could include help paying for housing, Medicaid coverage and caseworkers to guide and support youths in areas for which the young people seek help.
They could opt into the services even after leaving foster care, if they realize they can't make it on their own.
Helvey said the federal law provides significant matching funds for such extended services.
A study by Mainspring Consulting, funded by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, showed that Nebraska could get close to a dollar from the federal government for every dollar the state put into such services.
The study estimated the state portion of the cost would be between $2.7 million and $3.1 million in the first year.
Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said it was premature to comment on whether the agency would back such a program.
She said officials need to review the information given to lawmakers.
Helvey said money spent on such services could save the state in other areas.
National studies show that less than 2 percent of former foster youths graduate from college, and about half experience some degree of homelessness.
Many wind up on welfare or in prison.
“These transition services can make a life-changing difference between a young person getting an education and a good job, or ending up homeless and entering the adult public benefit system,” Helvey said.
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