By Vicki Smith
Megan Moore was 19 the day she walked away from nine years of foster care and group homes. She had earned her high school diploma, and she was excited, anxious and free — her head “a big ball of buzzing bees,” as she puts it.
Legally, she was an adult, but like hundreds of older teens who languish in foster care year after year, she was unprepared for independence. College and a career as an emergency medical technician are now dreams deferred.
“I’ve seen so many girls go out and fail utterly,” said Moore, now 22. “I failed, too.”
Indirectly, so did the state agency that tried to help. Child-welfare officials acknowledge they could have been doing more to prepare teens like Moore long before they’re on the brink of adulthood, though they’re unable to discuss specific cases.
In the past two budget years, the Department of Health and Human Resources returned nearly $1 million in unused federal funds aimed at helping young people who age out of the foster system with few skills to succeed in life.
The program was one of the few areas where federal support had increased since 2009, but the Bureau for Children and Families didn’t realize that, Commissioner Doug Robinson said recently. Nor did officials realize they could use that money to help children when they’re much younger.
That won’t happen again, Robinson said. West Virginia returned $600,000 in unspent funds two years ago, but only $357,000 last year. When the next September deadline rolls around, the agency expects to return little or no money.
“It was a learning curve for us,” Robinson said. “I’m not trying to lay blame or make excuses. It’s just the way it is.”
The agency is redoubling efforts to support the transition to independent living, Robinson said, now focusing on foster children as young as 14.
Plans are in the works for several events this year, including a family conference on life skills such as finding a job and balancing a checkbook. It’s scheduled for July at Stonewall Resort.
“In the past, we focused on when kids were 17 or closer to 18,” Robinson said. “What we’ve come to realize is that was shortsighted on our part.”
More than 4,000 children, teenagers and young adults are in foster care and group homes each year. They officially age out of the system at 18 but can voluntarily sign themselves back in until they’re 21.
Then they’re sent into the world, without curfews, authority figures or rules.
Experts say they often lack tools for success — a job, a car and a home, for starters. A caring adult to help them make good choices. An understanding of living on a budget, developing healthy relationships, staying out of trouble.
State officials say some return to dysfunctional families. Others head straight to shelters. Some turn to crime. Few get jobs.
The Rev. Matthew Watts said he sees them fail all the time.
And yet, “the older a child becomes, the less compassionate we become,” said Watts, pastor at Charleston’s Grace Bible Church. Although many have suffered abuse neglect and abandonment, “we assume they should have figured it out.”
Middle-class families “have created a finishing school for kids,” Watts said. “It’s called college. They get four more years of structure, four more years of subsidy, more time to prepare themselves for the real world.”
The state, however, often releases the most unstable youths, those with “the least skill and ability to manage, control and navigate their own lives,” Watts said. “They’re being told to sink or swim, and good luck.”
Federal funding under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program can offer a safety net until age 21 for those who choose to maintain a relationship with the state.
The money — $140 million a year nationwide — can pay for rent, transportation, computers and psychological counseling. The federal government has a related $60 million Educational and Training Vouchers Program for post-secondary schooling, offering participants vouchers of up to $5,000 per year.
Robinson said West Virginia also is returning less of that money — $126,000 two years ago and $70,000 this past year.
“Part of the conference we’re planning is to teach kids there’s a great opportunity, and there’s all this funding here that we can provide,” he says.
But if young people haven’t been planning to attend college, they won’t enroll in the voucher program when they get their diplomas. The state then has to return the money.
And no matter how much they need it, young people are often reluctant to accept any more help, said Alicia McIntire of the Bureau for Children and Families.
After years of answering to social workers, foster parents, probation officers, judges and others, young people often just want to cut ties.
To make the choice easier, McIntire said the agency recently shot a public-service video with graduates of the Chafee program sharing their stories. It airs repeatedly on Tuesdays through Library Television Network.
When Moore left her group home in Ceredo, she signed on for Chafee funds to cover rent and utilities. She took over a friend’s apartment lease, landed a Pell Grant for tuition and enrolled at Mountwest Community College in Huntington.
But soon, she missed deadlines for submitting her monthly budget and paperwork. She lost her $650 a month in Chafee funds, so she took on extra hours at a pizza shop to make rent. She quit school and grew depressed. Trash piled up. Before long, she was evicted.
“I guess I knew I was unprepared,” Moore said. “But I was excited to be out on my own, to be able to do what I wanted to do.”
Moore said her husband, Sherman, 23, is the only reason she didn’t end up on the street. The couple and their infant daughter lived with his parents in Wayne, saving up for a place of their own. Last month, they finally moved to a home in Kenova.
Moore said the state would be smart to focus on younger kids, but when they’re on their own, they still need attention and encouragement.
“It’s a really good program for kids who are determined,” Moore said. “But it’s best-suited for somebody who already knows what they have to do — someone who has a whole lot more self-discipline than I did at the time.”