For several years now, child advocates have warned that Kansas doesn't do enough to help the young people who leave foster care at age 18 make it on their own.
"We need to be sure we're not just putting these kids out on the street," once they cease to be wards of the state, said Gary Brunk, Kansas Action for Children executive director. "Unfortunately, for some, that seems to be the case."
The advocates' concerns were driven home last week when Jason Rose, a former foster child, was charged with setting the Boardwalk Apartments fire that left three tenants dead.
Rose, 20, is thought to have been in foster care for several years. Before moving to Boardwalk Apartments, he lived in The Villages, a group home for boys in foster care at 1149 East 1200 Road.
"He told me he'd been in foster care since he was 3 years old," said Sandara Meyer, who lived above Rose in the Boardwalk Apartments.
"People were paid to take care of him and tell him what to do," said Meyer, 68. "But is that love? I wonder how long it had been since he'd been told somebody loved him."
Meyer, who befriended Rose, declined to share what Rose had said about his parents. "Let's just say they were absent," she said. "Leave it at that."
Rose isn't the only former foster-care teen in trouble. In June, Jason Dillon was charged in the beating death of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.
Dillon, 22, had spent 4 1/2 years at O'Connell Youth Ranch before aging out of the foster care system.
"It looks like he went in (foster care) when he was 13," said Dillon's attorney, Mark Manna. "His parents divorced. His father moved out. There were substance-abuse issues. His mother had three kids. She was working and couldn't control him."
Manna did not blame foster care for his client's troubles.
"I cannot say with any degree of certainty that somebody dropped the ball," he said.
"They kept him out of trouble, they kept him sober, they kept him in school and he was working. But once he aged out, he was cut loose. He kept working, but he started using substances again."
Dillon's trial and Rose's preliminary hearing are pending. Both are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Unsuited for real world
Wes Crenshaw, a psychologist with Family Therapy Institute Midwest in Lawrence, said young adults in Rose and Dillon's situation often are not well-suited for life outside the system.
It's significant, he said, that both young men spent much of their growing-up years in group-home settings.
"When you raise a child in an institutionalized setting, you're essentially creating an institutionalized child," Crenshaw said.
"They're not parented," he said, referring to group-home teens in general and not to Rose and Dillon in particular. "They're living in a disciplined structure without any love or the normal trappings of a home. They tend to come out as very alienated, disaffected kids."
Since privatizing most of its child welfare system in 1996, Kansas has curbed its long-standing reliance on group homes.
State records show that in 1996, two-thirds of the children in foster care were in group home-type settings. Today, 11 percent are in group homes.
Generally, group homes are reserved for teens who've not succeeded in family foster-home settings.
Crenshaw praised the shift in policy but warned there's little to prevent teens from leaving foster care with little or no preparation for the harsh realities of living on their own.
"These are kids who want out," Crenshaw said. "They're 18, they think they're ready. But they're not."
Those with disabilities appear to struggle the most.
"If you had good foster parents who'll hang in there with you and if you don't have a disability or mental health issues, you have a decent shot of making it," said Davina Gans, a Lawrence foster parent who maintains contact with about a dozen teens who've aged out of foster care.
"But if you've bounced around and you're dealing with disabilities, well, you're in trouble," Gans said. "You're not going to have the support system you need - the support system everybody needs."
Free to leave
National studies have found that almost one-third of the teens leaving foster care have run-ins with the law, and only about half finish high school. Unemployment is commonplace.
In Kansas, teens in foster care are free to leave the system once they turn 18.
"Sometimes a judge is able to convince them that leaving the system would not be in their best interest," said Sandra Hazlett, director of children and family services at the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
"But if they're 18 and they want to be released from state custody, the law says 'they shall be released,'" Hazlett said.
With a judge's permission, foster-care teens may remain in the system until they're 21.
Kansas does not keep track of the 18- to 21-year-olds who age out of the system each year.
"We have no means to require them to let us know where they are," Hazlett said. "They would be difficult to track. It would have to be voluntary."
Creating living plans
When foster-care teens turn 16, Hazlett said, their social workers and case managers begin helping them come up with a post-18 "independent living plan."
For those who come up with a plan, aid and services are available:
¢ Up to $400 a month for living expenses.
¢ Tuition waivers at state-funded universities, junior colleges and vocational schools.
¢ Health care coverage.
¢ Help with car repairs.
To be eligible, teens are expected to land a job, save $1,000 and enlist an adult mentor who's willing to keep tabs on them.
Of the roughly 300 foster-care teens who age out of the system each year, about one-third take advantage of the aid and services. Two-thirds do not.
Rose was receiving services. Dillon was not.
Craig Stancliffe, a Lawrence attorney who often represents foster-care teens in court, doesn't blame the foster care system for his clients' troubles.
"There's not enough magic in the system to fix everybody," he said.
Some teens, he said, are reachable and some are not.
"Can you fix a kid who's been traumatized before age 5? Can you fix a kid who comes into the system with demons of his own making?" Stancliffe said. "Is there a 100-percent fix? No, there isn't. Fifty or 75 percent? Maybe."
Some slip through
Daisey DeKnight, 23, entered foster care when she was 13. She stayed until she was 21.
She's a foster-care success story, having graduated from Kansas University last semester with degrees in psychology and sociology.
When DeKnight heard that Rose and Dillon had spent their teen years in group homes, she said she wondered how they'd slipped through the system.
"I know why," she said. "They're foster kids. Nobody pays much attention to foster kids. It's not that (social workers) don't care or that they don't want to, it's because they don't have the time and there's so much turnover."
"When you're a foster kid," she said, "no one really listens."