Every year in the United States, nearly 28,000 children age out of the foster care system without having any permanent family ties.
A new report released Thursday concluded that a large number of those young adults are left without adequate services, resources or support systems to allow them to become productive citizens.
"The cost to society is tremendous," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which released the report.
To reduce the number of those who remain in the system until adulthood, the report recommends that human service agencies work harder to achieve permanent homes for older children who enter the system.
"It is a disturbing trend that more and more young people are aging out of care without any permanent connections," the report concludes. "Every youth who emancipates without reunification or permanency is a youth society has failed."
When that happens, Mr. Pertman said, too often those young adults don't have access to education or jobs. They have a higher rate of unwanted pregnancy and are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
"It costs us money," Mr. Pertman said. "It costs society far more in the long term than to invest in doing it right now and reap the benefits of it."
Mr. Pertman, however, also believes Americans are, generally, bad at long-term investment.
"We as a culture give a lot of lip service to children being our future, but in most states, in tough economic times, one of the first cuts we make is to children," Mr. Pertman said. "They become invisible. They don't vote. They don't lobby."
In Pennsylvania last year, 2,388 children were adopted. During the fiscal year (April 2010 to March 2011), a total of 1,534 children aged out of the system, representing a bit more than 10 percent of the 14,309 children in foster care.
The number of children in the system has been trending downward for several years as youth agencies have been working harder to achieve permanent placements for children -- especially with family members.
In Allegheny County, there are about 1,600 children in placement services now, and two-thirds of those are in foster care with relatives, said Marc Cherna, director of the department of human services.
The age group with the highest number of people entering the system is 15 to 17, he said.
"People think of Children and Youth as the abuse and neglect system," Mr. Cherna said.
Instead, it is older adolescents whose behavior can't be controlled, who are truant or delinquent who are coming in most often, he said.
Each year, about 200 people age out of foster care in Allegheny County.
When they reach 18, those still in the system can choose to leave. In 2006, about 90 percent were signing themselves out, Mr. Cherna said. Now, that number is down to about 70 percent.
The goal, he said, is for no child to hit age 18 while still in the dependency system.
"We're still striving to get them home. We're still striving to get them permanent living arrangements," Mr. Cherna said.
Until that happens, though, Allegheny County will continue to provide services to try to ease the transition into adulthood.
The Independent Living Initiative, created in 2006, provides a variety of resources up to age 24. At age 16, they are required to receive those services, including learning life skills, working toward additional education, job training and housing assistance.
Since the program began, more than 100 of the county's children who hit adulthood in the system have graduated from college. Another 120 are enrolled.
In addition, the department of human services hires alumni from the system to serve as mentors for the older adolescents as they make the transition.
Each county is responsible for its own programs and offers varying degrees of services to help older teens.
Allegheny County's model is viewed as a success nationally, Mr. Cherna said. He attributes much of that to having so many different arms of social service in his department -- housing, mental health treatment and drug and alcohol treatment.
"Most people don't have that and have to find providers," he said. "We have that capacity to serve in a holistic way."
Mr. Pertman believes programs like those in Allegheny County are an important part of the solution, though not the end goal.
That, he said, is getting even the older children in the system permanent homes.
"The new reality is that you don't have to form families with just little kids," Mr. Pertman said. "The way we've been doing [adoptions] is suited for little kids who look like them. It's not like that anymore.
"The idea of this report is to reinvigorate the discussion. We've got to do something today. If we keep waiting for tomorrow, all we're doing is wasting more lives and throwing away more money."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.