Reba Payne and several of her six siblings entered the child welfare system just after she turned 15.
Now 17, she found herself testifying in front of a panel of state senators Thursday about what it means to age out of the foster care system in Nebraska. In her case, that will be in a year, when she is in the first semester of her senior year in high school.
Nineteen-year-old John Thompson left the system a month ago after having been a state ward since age 12. He spoke at a news conference just before Thursday's hearing on the foster care interim study (LR537) introduced by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill.
When Thompson left the system, he said, he didn't feel ready to be on his own and didn't have many resources. He didn't know how to get through a job interview, and he was trying to figure out how to resurrect all the advice he had received over the years from judges, counselors and others in the system.
Each year since 2007, more than 300 youths have left foster care without adoptive parents or guardians. Their transition to adulthood -- alone -- is often rough, Nebraska Appleseed's Sarah Helvey said.
In 2011, 208 youths aged out of state care, and 113 were discharged to independent living at ages 16, 17 or 18, according to a Nebraska Appleseed report. Fifty-seven percent of them immediately lost Medicaid coverage.
Only 35 percent received services from the Former Ward program, intended to serve youths who are going on to college until they are 21. The report showed that from 2007 to 2010, an average of 27 young people each year received the fairly restrictive Former Ward services for the full two years.
A summer 2012 survey of 104 youths showed a majority had not heard of the program or were not receiving services.
"Although over half of youth who exited care without achieving permanency applied for the program, an average of 215 youth each year were left without the important financial support offered by (the) Former Ward (program)," the report said.
The passage in 2008 of the federal Fostering Connections Act provides states the opportunity to claim federal matching funds for the cost of extending foster care services to eligible youth until they turn 21, Helvey said.
"There's an opportunity here to make an investment in young people," she said. "And research nationally has shown that there's a two-to-one return on that."
An analysis by Mainspring Consulting of the cost of extending foster care services to about 429 young people in Nebraska to age 21 showed the state could spend $2.7 million to $3.1 million in the first year to cover case management and services, and extended guardianship and adoption assistance.
The federal government would kick in that much or more.
McGill said bridging the gaps in care for these youth would help improve their lives as they transition to adulthood, with education, health insurance and developing life skills.
"I'm 32 years old and still depend on my family at times for supports and guidance and advice," she said. "To be a young person who doesn't have that at 18, 19, 20 years old is impossible for me to fathom."
She introduced a bill (LB1150, the Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care Services Act) last session that was not debated, but it started the process, she said.
The state Department of Health and Human Services and community organizations are working on a practical plan for those youths, now that the child welfare system has been stabilized, McGill said.
It would help young people like Reba Payne, who would like to get a college degree in early childhood education.
"But I'm worried how I'm going to pay for school and not be in debt the rest of my life," she said.
Thompson, who is unemployed, is leaving Nebraska in about a week to go to California and join the Navy. Having state support to age 21 would give young people time to figure out the direction they need to take for a productive life, he said.
"I need a job, need an education and I can have a better life for myself," he said. "Unfortunately, I am only one example of many youth who have learned this lesson too late."