ANNAPOLIS – Eric Anderson, 23, of Baltimore, was 11 when he was taken from school to a psychiatric ward in the back of a police car.
He lived in a hospital for a year, and he was injected with needles to calm his anger and help him sleep.
Nobody called or came to visit, and when the doctors decided he was stable enough to be released, his mother refused to pick him up. A social worker came instead.
Anderson is one of many former foster care children in Maryland, and around the country, who spend most of their lives in the system and who are then released due to age, or “aged out,” without critical life skills learned in a normal home environment, advocates say.
“The major issue is the fallacy we think that kids at 18 are able to age out of anything,” said Millicent Williams, director of Foster Care for the Child Welfare League of America. “We don’t require that of our own children, but that’s what we do for kids in care.”
But state officials say Maryland has been progressive in providing services for children in foster care, allowing them to remain in the system until 21.
“In many ways Maryland has been a kinder, gentler state,” said Judith Schagrin, assistant director for children’s services for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. “Children are allowed to stay in care till 21 if they’re in school, in transition, in training or disabled.”
In Maryland, 518 children left foster care due to age in fiscal year 2004, slightly fewer than the 559 who aged out during fiscal year 2003, according to the Citizens’ Review Board for Children.
But for Anderson it was more like being “put out.”
“There was no support from the state (after aging out),” said Anderson. “I think they should keep us till we’re 23. Even after we age out (the state) should be there as a backbone.”
Anderson, recently a full-time employee of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, has found success in his life, but he hasn’t forgotten where he’s been.
He still has a scar on his left thumb from punching his fist through glass in the incident that put him in the police car and the hospital.
Now he entertains thoughts of going to college in business administration, but a few years ago he was released from an independent-living program because of a drug habit. If not for his advocates at HEBCAC Youth Opportunities, he says he’d probably be selling drugs or strung out.
The Baltimore program, which helps out-of-school youth with education and employment placement, helped reconnect him with the system and find a job after aging out.
“Eric is a very talented young man,” said Barbara Medlin, Anderson’s employment advocate at Youth Opportunities. “I want him to continue with his education. I think he would be a great asset in any office.”
More than 500,000 children are living in foster care nationally, and 11,000 in Maryland. Between 20,000 and 25,000 leave the system due to age each year.
“In general, every kid that comes in the system has experienced some kind of abuse or neglect,” said Charlie Cooper, administrator for the Citizens’ Review Board for Children. “If they’re aging out of the system they never got squared away with a family the way other people do.”
At 6 years old Anderson was molested by a male family member who was never prosecuted. He was in and out of foster care, and the abuse continued until he was 11, but he never told anyone.
“The anger started to take over me,” said Anderson. “But I didn’t want to torment my family. I just didn’t want to break them up.”
Most child advocates agree foster care is designed as a temporary arrangement, but many kids remain in the system permanently.
“The goal of foster care is almost always family reunification,” said Ross Pologe, executive director of Fellowships of Lights, a non-profit youth and community services organization. “In an ideal world, foster care is thought of as a temporary situation to assist families . . . suffering through a crisis.”
Anderson returned to live with his immediate family for a short time, but life at home was no better, and the abuse continued.
He later enrolled in New Pathways, the largest independent-living program for foster care youth in Maryland, and he remains involved with the program today.
Children who age out of foster care are more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness and incarceration. They are also less likely to graduate from high school or continue on with secondary or post-secondary education.
Nationally, about 57 percent of youth leaving the foster care system do not have a high school diploma, according to the Child Welfare League.
“We do a horrible job educationally with kids in the system, which then leads to not getting a good job, not having enough work skills, homelessness, unemployment and incarceration,” Williams said.
Anderson did not graduate from high school, but recently received his diploma from an online program with Baltimore City Community College. He credits the help he’s received from various programs after aging out to his success.
“Transitional programs give kids the real life experience of paying rent and paying bills,” Kevin Keegan, executive director of New Pathways, said.
But they provide even more than that, he said.
“Who do you rely on if you don’t have that support system built into your life?” Keegan said. “We keep in touch with many of the kids who leave the program, to be that extended family after they leave care.”
Anderson’s is one of many, but not enough, success stories.
“These are not kids who have done anything wrong and are in the system,” Keegan said. “These are kids who have been wronged.”