For 17 years, Shantaye Wonzer has been a foster kid. She’s moved more than 15 times, been adopted unsuccessfully and lived in two group homes. Yet this September on her 21st birthday, her life will become even more unstable: She will, for the first time in 17 years, be completely independent.
"The hardest part will be knowing that I won’t have anywhere to turn to for help. I’ve been able to build up a network around me, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m losing the closest thing that I have had to a parent for the last 18 years," says Wonzer, a student at Bradley University in Peoria.
Until 2007, Illinois’ foster children were emancipated at 18, moving them from home life to complete independence. Illinois is now one of the few states that postpone emancipation to age 21. Currently Illinois foots the bill for foster care services after age 18, but a new bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would provide federal funding to states to continue providing foster care services to youth over 18.
"No matter how good the system gets, all foster children will hit that fateful day without family connections," says Kendall Marlowe, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services. "Kids in foster care have so many more challenges."
Amy Dworsky, a lead researcher at Chapin Hall Center for Children, has studied aging out of the system since 2002, following more than 700 foster youths as they transition to independence.
"Compared to their peers (not in foster care), they’re faring worse. They’re less likely to complete college, more disposed to pregnancy and have higher rates of incarceration," she says. "There’s certainly a gap in the after(care) services provided."
Since 1999, some states have been able to extend Medicaid to age 21, but Illinois has not.
Dr. Joe Rosckowski, clinical supervisor at Our Children’s Homestead in Naperville, said Illinois doesn’t provide enough aftercare services for the adolescent foster kids the organization sees.
"When the court door closes, they have to create a life for themselves. Most of these kids have genetic histories of mental illnesses, have suffered physical abuse and just grew up in an unstable system," says Roszkowski. "I worked with a 21-year-old kid who said that he thought he’d be better off in jail. That’s pretty shocking."