Like most states, California has failed to provide an effective safety net for the more than 4,000 children who age out of its foster care system each year.
In ordinary circumstances, young adults count on continued financial and emotional support from their families and are almost never completely on their own after turning 18.
A typical parent spends an average of $44,500 on a child after he or she becomes an adult, "and that doesn't include the kid being still in his room at home," said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of Children's Advocacy Institute, based at the University of San Diego School of Law.
By contrast, foster youths get a median of $5,000 in public support after aging out of care.
"Most kids don't get anything," Fellmeth said. "Most kids get zero. (They get) 'Hit the streets with your clothes in your trash bag.'"
One study says that at least one in five former foster children becomes homeless within a few years of becoming a legal adult. Other research, using broader criteria for homelessness, sets the figure as high as half.
In recent years, a growing number of programs have begun trying to help better prepare foster children for independence.
But public and volunteer services remain fragmented, sporadic and largely symbolic, Fellmeth said.
"The problem is scale," he said. "The problem is (lawmakers)
In the face of tough odds, some former foster youths do manage to finish their education and build productive lives, many with the help of service programs.
"There are some points of light," Fellmeth said. "But these are all points of light that are dots. When you look up at the night sky, there are lots of points of light but it's still dark."
Two bills pending in the state Legislature this year could help prevent foster youths from becoming homeless.
One, AB845, would add $15.5 million to THP-Plus, a state-funded transitional housing program for former foster youth ages 18 to 24.
Right now, the program can only house 167 young adults statewide.
The new money, also recommended in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget, would expand that to 1,000 enough for about a quarter of those who become homeless after aging out of foster care, said Amy Lemley, policy director at the John
Burton Foundation for Children without Homes.
"It's still not meeting the goal, but it would be a significant investment," she said.
The proposal seems to be winning support from both sides of the aisle, Lemley said.
Another bill, AB1331, would allow teenagers with serious mental or physical disabilities to apply for Supplemental Security Income before aging out of foster care.
About 15 percent of youths leaving the foster system potentially are eligible for SSI, but only 3 percent receive the payments, Lemley said.
Waiting until 18 is too late: The average time to process and review an SSI application is more than 440 days.
"For a youth with a serious mental health or physical disability, they've often just disappeared by then," Lemley said.
Although not on the legislative agenda, two larger reforms could brighten the future of foster youths, Lemley said.
The first is allowing youths to voluntarily remain in care until age 21, as New York and Illinois do. Because of California's large caseload and the potential cost that would result, such a move likely would require federal support, Lemley said.
Equally important are efforts to support fragile families, keeping children out of foster placement in the first place, Lemley said.
"Foster care was never designed to be a long-term environment to raise children," she said. "It just doesn't have the rich support that a family provides. A family's a lot more than just a program."
Only a fraction of families contacted by child protective services departments end up having children removed from their home. New models offer voluntary services to the rest, and many take them up on it, Lemley said. Such strategies can be nudged along by waiving rules to allow federal child welfare dollars to be spent on children not in foster care.
Along with the Children's Advocacy Institute, Fellmeth proposes a more radical solution.
In the five years after foster children emancipate from care, the state should commit to spending $47,000 on each of its former charges, Fellmeth said.
Guardians would act as parents normally do, ensuring the money is spent according to a predetermined plan integrating housing, education, job training and other needs.
The commitment would cost the state $160 million but would save twice that much in costs of incarceration, welfare and lost productivity, according to the group's cost-benefit analysis, Fellmeth said.
So far, he says, legislators have been unenthusiastic about finding money to pay for the guardianship plan. And the Mental Health Services Act, which includes former foster youths among its target populations, distributes its tax revenue according to plans designed by individual counties.
Society would be more concerned about the needs of former foster youths if more people got to meet them, Fellmeth said.
"They are very deserving people," he said. "These are kids who are trying, kids who have been mistreated and all they care about is their sibling and the parent who mistreated them. They have total generosity of spirit."