Every year in Allegheny County, 2,400 children live in foster care, either with families or in group homes, because they can't care for themselves and their families can't either. In a typical year, 240 of the young people reach age 18, which means they can choose to drop out of the child welfare system.
That first taste of freedom can seem sweet and, until three years ago, most of the freshly minted adults were choosing it. As a consequence, though, too many of them were winding up homeless, jobless, in jail or in other trouble.
In 2006, Allegheny County's Department of Human Services launched an effort to provide the kind of help and support that other young people get from their families to the former foster youths until they reach 24.
Although most of the young people are no longer eligible for placement with foster families, the county provides some housing and many services through contracts with various agencies. One option provides free housing in exchange for community service, which allows young adults a chance to get on their feet without the daily pressure of finding a place to stay. There's access to counseling, computer classes, tutoring, job preparation and GED classes.
One outcome has been a jump in the number of foster care graduates entering college - from 35 in 2006 to 98 in 2008.
In Pennsylvania, every county makes its own provisions for handling foster youths when they reach 18 and, in some places, that means they are left to their own devices. By contrast to that sink-or-swim approach, Allegheny County's method gives the young foster care alumni a safety net, while they learn how to find housing, acquire health care, get jobs or enroll in training programs.
The county has set an example that others would be wise to follow.