The age of majority in Maryland is 21. That's when childhood and adolescence officially end. But just because a young person reaches that age doesn't mean he or she is prepared to undertake all the responsibilities of adulthood. And the difficulties faced by youths venturing out into the world for the first time are only compounded when they have grown up in foster care without a family to call their own.
Few young people are really prepared to make their way independently at that age, even if they have been lucky enough to have loving parents, a stable home, a fine education and opportunities to participate in sports, social events and other activities. There are plenty of kids from comfortable homes who still rely on mom and dad's advice and support after they've left the nest.
But kids who grow up in foster care have it especially tough. For them, arriving at age 21 can be a frightening milestone, not only because they suddenly have to fend for themselves but because for many of them it also means losing the closest thing to family they have ever known.
Not surprisingly, a lot of foster kids have trouble making the transition to adulthood. As The Sun's Mary Gail Hare reported recently, about half the foster kids who "age out" of the child welfare system at age 21 end up homeless within 18 months. That's a terrible waste of Maryland's human capital. .
Last year, Maryland Department of Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas launched a new initiative called Ready by 21, which aims to prepare young people in foster care for the responsibilities of adulthood. The program provides job training and financial literacy courses to give youths a solid grounding in the essentials needed to become self-supporting adults. It also assists them in finding stable housing and health care.
Yet one of the most effective strategies for helping foster children find their way is to partner them with a supportive adult willing to listen to their problems and offer advice — a teacher, a social worker or a former foster parent or group home counselor. It's the genuineness of the personal relationship that matters, because sometimes just knowing someone else cares can make the difference between a kid's success or failure.
Maryland's social services department wants to expand the job training and financial literacy services it can offer to foster children, and the department is also supporting legislation that would allow it to help young people improve their credit ratings and establish savings accounts. But most of all, what the state's foster care system needs more of the human touch.
Ready by 21 partners with local social services departments and private nonprofits to recruit adult mentors for young people before they leave the foster care system. But many local social services agencies still don't have enough mentors to meet the need.
It's vital to find people who are willing to become involved in the lives of these youngsters, and volunteers are urgently needed for this important work. Through no fault of their own, foster children have had to grow up without their parents and learn to make their way alone. They want to be productive members of society as much as anyone else, and as a community we owe it to ourselves to help them succeed.