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Too old for foster care, they hit streets unprepared for life

Shakhina Bellamy, who gave up on New York's foster care system at 17, is a client of the Children's Aid Society in the Bronx. (Julie Jacobson/associated press)

NEW YORK -- Articulate and engaging, 20-year-old Shakhina Bellamy appears -- at first meeting -- an unlikely fit in the ranks of New York City's homeless.

Yet after hearing her story, told through tears and flashes of anger, her state of limbo seems an almost inevitable result of an adolescence spent bouncing through a dozen group homes and foster families as a ward of New York's child welfare agency. She entered the system at 9 and walked away at 17.

"I didn't leave because I thought I was grown up -- I left because no one was helping me," she said.

Across the country, child welfare advocates are increasingly aware of the problems faced by young people like Bellamy -- 20,000 or so each year who "age out" of the foster care system with neither an adoptive nor a blood-relation family to support them. Scores of state and local initiatives are being launched; their plight may be addressed by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

But front-line child welfare workers say even the best new programs won't suffice without the hard work of engaging foster children one-on-one as they enter adolescence, mentoring them in ways that replicate the best of a parent-child relationship. Bellamy agrees.

"You have to really talk to the kids, understand what they're going through, and listen when they complain," she said. "If you don't, there are always going to be problems."

At present, youths are eligible to leave the foster care system when they turn 18. They often have the option of remaining in it voluntarily, but advocacy groups say many are pressured to move on or -- if they make their own decision to leave -- are not given good advice about how to adjust.

"As a society, we have failed young people aging out of foster care," asserts Lynne Echenberg, with the private Children's Aid Society in New York. "Despite conclusive research showing how vulnerable they are upon discharge from care, these young adults continue to exit the child welfare system to lives of uncertainty, pain, destitution, and marginalization."

Studies by specialists across the country show dismaying statistics for those who age out of foster care. Fewer than half complete high school; many have no jobs and no home except for a friend's couch. Their rates of arrests, health problems, and welfare dependency are far higher than for contemporaries with families.

One potentially helpful step would be to extend more foster-case protections to age 21, as Representative Danny Davis, Democrat of Illinois, has proposed. Many advocates also are pushing for changes much earlier in the process, contending that foster children as young as 12 or 13 need extra help starting to prepare for the transition to adulthood.

Across the country, much of the innovative work with older foster children is being done by private nonprofit organizations, such as the Children's Aid Society. It recently opened a resource center in the Bronx, offering guidance on jobs, housing, health care, education, and legal problems.

Among the center's clients is Shakhina Bellamy. Her odyssey through the foster-care system came about because of her mother's on-again, off-again drug abuse. They were reunited eight years ago, but Bellamy was forced back into the system at 14 when her mother relapsed into drugs.

Bellamy spent the next three years moving among different group homes and foster homes, Bellamy pleaded with caseworkers for better living arrangements, but they said options were limited for a foster child her age. So at 17, she dropped out of the system.

She managed to graduate from high school in Harlem -- but was one of the few in her class with no relatives attending commencement. She briefly tried college, but found it unmanageable without family or financial support.

She has had three jobs over the past four years -- the longest for four months -- and now is jobless and without a permanent home, moving between the apartments of friends and an aunt.

Acknowledging past problems, New York City officials adopted a new plan last summer to improve prospects for the roughly 1,200 young people who age out of foster care in the city each year.

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