ATLANTA - There are thousands of Georgians in foster care, and hundreds age out of the system without finding a forever home.
Although the state has changed the rules to try to protect this often vulnerable population, Channel 2 investigative reporter Erica Byfield found that once youths are on their own, they often face scary consequences.
“I ended up jobless, on my own. I had no one to reach out to,” Mia told Byfield.
Mia now has a job, an apartment and a story that can bring you to tears. At 16, she traveled to Florida, where she thought she had found a new family.
“Four days before they were going to sign the official adoption papers, they decided they didn't want me anymore,” Mia said.
She said she spent the next five years in care before she aged out of Georgia’s foster system at age 21.
“I got an email from my case worker's supervisor that said, 'Good luck,' pretty much,” Mia said.
Two other former foster youths told Byfield that they weren’t as lucky as Mia.
“I left care at 18. I ended up being homeless for a while,” Aaron told Byfield.
Aaron found an apartment and a job, but 20-year-old Dominique is still looking for a home. She left New York’s foster system at 18 and recently moved to Atlanta to look for a job and a home.
“I thought things were going to get a little bit easier (after leaving care), better, but ultimately it got worse,” Dominique said.
At one point all three former foster children wondered how they would eat, where they would sleep and who could they turn to.
“I don’t think anybody has that vision in their future: ‘Hey, I think I'm going to be homeless,’” Dominique said.
Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) runs Georgia's foster care program. As of this month, there are close to 10,000 children in care.
Dr. Nia Cantey heads up the agency's Independent Living Program (ILP). ILP aims to give life skills for a safe and productive transition into adulthood to youth who are vulnerable to aging out of care without a home.
“Our goal is to try and prevent homelessness, to try and make sure youth are employed, healthy, educated,” Cantey told Byfield.
The state's rules for opting in and out changed last year. Now care runs through 21, but children can leave at 18. Previously, youths aged out of care at 18 but could seek placement until 21.
DFCS’ statistics show that since the change, 177 have opted out of their care, and 426 stayed.
“Once you turn 18, it doesn't mean that any of us is an adult,” said Ashley Willcott, director of the Governor’s Office of the Child Advocate.
Her staffers work each year with the Committee on Justice for Children on the Cold Case Project, an initiative to predict which foster children risk aging out, and find them homes.
“The success rate for finding cold-case children permanent homes of the children reviewed in 2014 was 25 percent,” Willcott told Byfield.
Willcott said the goal this year is 30 percent.
Covenant House Executive Director Allison Ashe said youth who are not as lucky come through her shelter after ending up on the streets.
“Close to a third of the young people that come to us have aged out of the foster care system,” Ashe said.
The staff at the Covenant House tries to help them get on their feet.
Dominique, who is staying at another shelter, just wants stability.
“When you're only surviving, you're stressed on a day-to-day basis,” Dominique said.
Dominique said she wanted to sign herself back into Georgia’s system so she could get state assistance for school, but it was too late.
“What's scary?” Byfield asked Dominique about her current situation.
“Having to do it all by yourself,” she replied.
Dominique, Aaron and Mia think care should extend beyond 21.
“The system sets up a lot of youth who age out of care for failure,” Mia said.
Cantey said the state is always working to improve and is committed to giving foster children the tools they need to succeed. The state provides additional support to youth who age out until age 25.
DFCS hopes to hear more success stories now that youth are staying in care longer.
Aaron said he doesn't see failure as an option.
“I'll fight with everything in me before I go back to being homeless,” he said.