Click here to read Legislative Bill 216.
LINCOLN — At 23, Amanda Huxoll feels years older than many of her peers.
As a former foster child, she had to grow up fast.
After nine years in foster care in the Cambridge, Neb., area, she “aged out” of the child welfare system when she turned 19. She got an apartment, a part-time waitressing job and enrolled at McCook Community College. She was a criminal justice major with hopes of becoming a probation officer some day.
But the part-time job didn't bring in enough money.
“I realized I had to drop out of school, or sleep in my car,” Huxoll said Thursday at a press conference to highlight a legislative proposal to offer transitional services to youths who have outgrown foster care.
The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee held a public hearing Thursday afternoon on the proposal, Legislative Bill 216, introduced by State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln.
The measure would provide additional health care, housing and case management services to foster children and former foster children from age 18 until their 21st birthday. Foster and former foster children would have the choice of whether or not to participate in the program.
Leaders of Nebraska's Health and Human Services System oppose the proposal. Thomas Pristow, director of the Children and Family Services Division, described it as an entitlement program that might bust his budget.
If only half of eligible young adults use the program, it would cost $11.5 million per year in state funds, Pristow said.
Advocates had estimated that the cost to the state would be closer to $3 million. They argue that participants most likely will be the relatively small proportion of former foster children who leave the system to live on their own — not the larger numbers of foster children who rejoin their families or live with adoptive parents or guardians.
They estimated that 10 percent of eligible 18-year-olds, 30 percent of eligible 19-year-olds and 25 percent of eligible 20-year-olds would use the program during its first two years.
Pristow questioned those assumptions.
“This number is a gross underestimate based on assumptions that could result in the program being underfunded and cause a deficit in my budget,” he said in prepared testimony.
Huxoll dropped out of school and went to work full time, sometimes logging 14-hour shifts at her waitressing job. Though she has not been able to return to college, she met a woman who offered her the job she holds today, at an art studio in Cambridge.
“I worked hard and struggled to get where I am today,” she said. “I was determined not to be another statistic.”
Huxoll and Mickey Alder of Lincoln, another foster care “graduate,” said former foster children often have no one to turn to for help and advice on typical questions that can flummox young adults.
“How do I set up car insurance? What if I have an accident?” Alder cited another example. “When you're in the system, plans are made for you. A lot of kids don't know how to set up their own doctor's appointments.”
Alder, 22, and a social work student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that if she hadn't had friends willing to house her, she would have become homeless after leaving the foster care system.
Consultants who studied the proposal last year assumed a total of about 430 former foster children ages 18 to 21 would participate in the program, with a cost of about $3 million to the state. The federal government would provide another $3 million through Medicaid and federal foster care support. About $900,000 would come from an existing state program that provides limited assistance to youths transitioning out of foster care.
However, even they estimate the program would grow by nearly 40 percent by 2017, with the state's share increasing to about $5 million.
The proposal is backed by the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.
“Nebraska is a state where we take care of our kids,” said Sarah Helvey, director of the agency's child welfare program. “But we're having poor outcomes for too many children aging out of the foster care system.”
Mary Fraser Meints, executive director of Youth Emergency Services in Omaha, said 51 percent of 267 homeless youth on Omaha's streets in January were former foster children.
“There are many causes of homelessness — and being in foster care should not be one of them,” she said.
McGill said she is optimistic about the bill's prospects after discussing it with other lawmakers, particularly members of the Appropriations and Health and Human Services Committees.
McGill said the bill ought to be the next step in lawmakers' recent efforts to improve Nebraska's foster care system.
“It's a key piece of legislation,” she said. “It's finishing our job.”
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