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With cuts on horizon, state ponders future of foster care

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Eighteen-year-old Amanda Addison has jumped around from intake centers to short-term foster care homes since childhood and is barely scraping by on a $100 a week while preparing to attend community college.

But she worries her plans could be jeopardized if the state lowers the cutoff age for foster care services to 18 from 21 -- a cost-cutting change proposed by Gov. Don Carcieri in his effort to close a $360 million budget deficit over two years.

"It would change everything," Addison said during an interview at a support center here where foster youths learn skills to prepare them for adult life. "I wouldn't be able to go to school. I wouldn't be able to follow my dreams."

The proposal would remove 857 young adults from the foster care system starting in July, part of an overall $17 million in cuts recommended for the state's Department of Children, Youth and Families in 2008. It's one of several proposals by Carcieri to balance the budget, including cutting jobs and state salaries.

Critics say the changes would force teenagers into already overcrowded homeless shelters and leave young adults at greater risk for crime and pregnancy. They say the move is also unusual because other states have been moving toward providing benefits to foster children longer as a way to ease the transition into adulthood.

"It's almost like building the bridge and not connecting the rest of the highway," said Lisa Guillette, executive director of the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association. "When we get them to the most critical point of their young lives we're going to abandon them? It's immoral and it's bad policy. It's walking away from the investment we've made in them."

Carcieri's spokesman Jeff Neal said the decision to recommend the changes was "one of the most difficult choices in the governor's budget plan." He said the state will hold a case-by-case review for each affected youth to help them transition into appropriate state or federal support programs -- such as Rhode Island's health insurance program for low-income children and parents and another program that provides temporary financial assistance to needy families.

"It is the grim reality of having to reduce spending by $360 million," Neal said. "We have to balance the budget. We have no other option."

The cuts in Rhode Island come as other states consider expanding state foster care, said Robin Nixon, executive director of the nonpartisan National Foster Care Coalition in Washington.

In Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a law in 2006 allowing youth to remain in foster care until they are 21, up from 18. A bill was introduced in California this year to provide money, tuition and housing vouchers to former foster youth for up to five years after their 18th birthday.

Rhode Island's current foster program gives young adults enrolled in colleges or vocational schools state health care, assistance with college tuition and housing until their 21st birthday. Advocates say it makes no sense that young people would continue to be able to attend college classes, for which they also may receive federal aid, but might not have a place to live.

It's also unreasonable to expect 18-year-olds to be self-sufficient when most young adults with stable backgrounds live with their parents, said Karen Jorgensen, executive director of the National Foster Parents Association.

"We have at least the obligation to make the transition to adulthood consistent with societal norms of child rearing," Jorgensen said. "Our society is not set up in a way where an 18-year-old can make a living on their own."

Homeless advocates said there simply isn't space in Rhode Island shelters for the more than 800 people facing a cutoff of their support. They also worry their services, which are designed for chronically homeless adults, aren't right for youths on the cusp of adulthood who need schooling and job skills.

"A lot of the younger folks aren't ready for an intensive program and we struggle with the best package of services to help them," said Eileen Hayes, executive director of Amos House, which hosts soup kitchens and helps the homeless in Rhode Island.

Some advocates also argue that the state will save money in the long run by continuing to fund foster care through age 21.

Madeline Burgess, 23, enrolled in foster care services at age 13 after her biological parents were jailed. While on state support, Burgess earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from Rhode Island College. She now works with foster kids and recently purchased her own home.

"I'm only where I am because of these services," Burgess said.

Advocates are set to appear at a Senate hearing on the cuts in April but support groups are already trying to prepare the youth for possible changes. Addison is worried about where she'll end up.

"Some of us would be homeless and more of us won't have health care," said. "And living outside is not good for us."