CINCINNATI -- A new study has calculated the price the community pays for having scores of young adults who age out of the child welfare system each year, and it isn't cheap.
In Hamilton County alone, an average of more than 100 youth leave the system between the ages of 18 and 21 each year. Those young people cost local residents roughly $17.7 million per year in additional services and lost productivity, according to a new study by the University of Cincinnati's Economics Center.
As sobering as that number is, though, the study also found good news: Community intervention such as the Higher Education Mentoring Initiative, or HEMI, was found to have a positive impact on the foster youth that participated in it. Young adults who aged out of foster care and had participated in HEMI were more likely to have jobs, less likely to become pregnant and less likely to become tangled up in the criminal justice system, among other findings.
"All of us do better when somebody is kind of cheering us along," said Moira Weir, director of the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services, which released the study to WCPO Tuesday. "We want to get every foster child hooked up with a mentor."
More graduates, fewer pregnancies
The Economics Center study was the first local look at the financial impact of children who "emancipate," or age out of the foster care system without a permanent relationship with a dedicated, caring adult. Study sponsors included Hamilton County Job and Family Services, Ohio Reach and the Harmony Project.
The study examined 864 youth who aged out of foster care in Hamilton County from 2008 to 2015 -- an average of about 108 per year. It assessed their financial impact locally based on the results of national and regional studies.
Multiple studies have shown that foster youth are more likely than non-foster peers to:
• Drop out of school
• Have an unplanned pregnancy
• Experience homelessness
• Be underemployed
• Be uninsured, and
• Be involved in the criminal justice or social service system.
By applying larger studies' results to Hamilton County's foster youth population, the UC study found that the Hamilton County foster youth who age out of the system each year could cost society:
• $8 million annually in health care expenses for mental health or substance abuse treatment, emergency room visits, hospital stays or the cost of childbirth for uninsured moms.
• $2 million per year for arrest, convictions and incarcerations.
• $73,000 each year for the cost of homeless shelter expenses.
• $7.6 million annually because they are unemployed or underemployed.
Someone to believe in him
The study also looked at the financial impact of HEMI, which was started in 2009. The program pairs foster youth in high school with mentors to help them graduate from high school and continue to college or some kind of career path. Mentors agree to long-term relationships with the youth that include meeting at least one hour each week in person and always being available by phone, text or email.
The program makes a huge difference in the lives of foster youth such as Antonio Allen.
Allen, who is now 25, entered the child welfare system when he was 15. The relationship between him and his mother was such that he could no longer live in her home. He lived with a foster father for two and a half years before he moved in with a foster mother.
Allen always has been motivated to achieve but felt for years like the adults in his life didn't believe in him.
That changed, he said, when he started participating in the HEMI program and was paired with a mentor who offered him the kind of love and support that every young person needs.
“My HEMI mentor knew I had the capability to be a responsible adult and manifest my potential,” said Allen, who earned a bachelor’s degree and has a good job with a big health care company. “The fact that I still have a relationship with my HEMI mentor and the fact that she’s always believed in me and the fact that I’ve never had any dissonance with my HEMI mentor speaks volumes about the relationships they can build.”
‘Now’s the time’
The UC study said the HEMI program costs $283,500 each year in program expenses and youth scholarships, and it reduced costs to the community by $767,800 annually.
A total of 88 percent of the young people who took part in HEMI graduated from high school or obtained their GEDs compared to 91 percent of youth in the general population and 72 percent of foster youth that have aged out of the system.
The HEMI participants also were significantly more likely than other foster youth to go to college and get their degrees and far less likely to have babies.
Perhaps most surprisingly, 71 percent of the HEMI participants were employed as compared to 47 percent of foster youth who didn't participate in the program and 66 percent of the general population.
Weir said the results tell her that money invested in HEMI pays off, and she praised Hamilton County commissioners for their commitment to the program over the years.
The key, she said, will be to find more mentors for Hamilton County's foster youth and find more money to pay for programs such as HEMI.
"If you're out there and you'd like to become a mentor, now's the time," Weir said.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.