Arkansas Children Aging Out of Foster Care: Is State Support Enough?

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - No call at Christmas.   No one to wish you a Happy Birthday.   No one to ask advice about life's toughest decisions.

Children who age out of Arkansas's foster care system without ever being adopted face an uphill battle at best.  Others face what they feel is a roller-coaster ride out of control.

Ashley Koettel wishes her life would be as smooth as the manicures she's learning to give as a cosmetology student.  But, life hasn't exactly been fair.

Ashley Koettel tells, "My childhood was normal until my dad died and my mom got a bunch of money from Social Security and she ended up using that on the wrong things and got the wrong addictions."

Ashley's mother became hooked on meth.  She along with her brothers and sisters were removed from the home.  All of them went to relatives.  Ashley was the only child who ended up in foster care.

Ashley, "...and then after that, it was very different.  I wasn't on the cheerleading squad anymore.  I wasn't into athletics."

Kentucky social services sent her to live with relatives in Newport, Arkansas; but that situation didn't work out and Ashley stayed in foster care until her graduation last year.

She enrolled in Arkansas' Independent Living Program operated by the Department of Human Services, where former foster care youth up to the age of 21 are eligible for assistance to help get an education along with life-skills training.

Ashley enrolled at ASU and things seemed to be going well, until she says her board payments from the state got behind.  She had to get a job to try to make up the difference.

Each month she got more and more behind on bills and her credit became ruined.  Finally, she had to drop out of school--owing ASU more than $3,600.

Ashley shared her tale of turmoil today at a local meeting of the adoption coalition, an organization trying to promote adoptions within the state.

Ashley is not alone.  An increasing number of the state's foster children leave the state system at age 18 having never been adopted.  A recent study by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families found that over the past five years, nearly 1,000 children in foster care aged out without ever having been adopted.  African American children make up the greatest percentage of those who never get adopted.

Aged out foster kids often don't complete high school and face increased risks of becoming young parents, being homeless and criminal activities.

And, just like Ashley has found, manuvering the system available to foster children that age out is very difficult.  Now Ashley works two part-time jobs and attends the Arkansas Academy of Hair Design five days a week.

She says DHS still hasn't paid.

Ashley's DHS caseworker is located in Batesville.  To see her, Ashley has to miss school, putting her further behind.   In Arkansas, youth are supposed to be available to get basic services of up to $2,000 to find a place to live.

Ashley says that her board payments have only been for $230 a month and only $50 of that amount can go toward food.