Worrying about the least of these

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Well, the election is over, and I can say that once again, it came out exactly the way I thought it would. Except, that is, for one state legislative seat in North Carolina, and I am confident the recount there will vindicate me.

Truthfully, however, lest any comparisons be made with any sportswriters living or dead, let me confess I am writing this before the votes have been counted, and haven't a clue. Next week we'll consider what the results mean, and whether we should reinforce our bunkers when the newly elected take over.

But today, while you do know the results, you are doubtless sick of all the candidates anyway, yours as well as theirs. So what I'd like to ask you to do is think about some folks whom nobody talks about much at all.

They are the thousands of kids who, every year, fall through the cracks of our foster care system. No, I'm not talking about the Ricky Hollands, who are tortured and murdered by the people to whom they are given by the state.

The newspapers, to their credit — especially the Detroit Free Press — have written about these kids.

Sometimes I worry people will think that now that Ricky's slimeball parents are in the slam, the foster care problem is essentially solved. What concerns me are the kids who have reasonably good experiences, or at least aren't starved, beaten or raped. What the papers should be writing more about is what happens to these kids when they "age out" of the system.

That is, they are never adopted; they reach their 18th birthday, and that's it. Their foster parents are no longer being paid to care for them; they say good-bye, and the "official adults" are left on their own, usually without any money, family or other support structure to speak of. How do these kids do?

How would you think they do? Pretty badly. I have one friend who was in a situation like that, and actually made it. I probably would have ended up dead or worse, and so would you, and for that matter, so would Dick DeVos.

Every year, there are about 450 foster care kids in Michigan who age out of the system. Earlier this fall, we learned a lot about what happens to them. That's thanks to a new report from a task force co-chaired by Maura Corrigan, the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and Marianne Udow, head of the Michigan Department of Human Services. This year, the department sensibly had them convene a group to study what happens to former foster kids. (You can find and read the report at michigan.gov or call 517-373-7394 for a copy.)

To the extent statistics exist, they are grim. Nationwide, four years after "aging out" of foster care, fewer than half the former clients had graduated from high school. One-quarter of them had been homeless. One out of every four of the young men had spent time in jail. Two out of every five former foster care kids were already parents themselves. (Imagine what prospects most of their children are likely to have.)

Unemployment among these former foster kids is, naturally, appalling. There is some evidence that conditions in Michigan may be even worse than average. A study Wayne State University did this year of "aged out" youths in Wayne County found that those who did work made, on average, $5,400 a year. Nearly half of all the Wayne County kids had been homeless and more than half were on some form of public assistance.

During the campaign, neither candidate for governor did anything I saw to indicate the slightest interest in these kids, or even the ticking time bomb they represent in our society: a growing corps of desperate people without hope.

Fortunately, the state task force came up with a number of sensible recommendations. Some of these can be automatically enacted; others will need legislative approval. They include letting young "adults" stay in foster care longer, and providing for expanded and improved summer training, educational and financial aid programs. They also suggest expanded and lengthened medical and dental care coverage to these kids, who always lacked what so many others take for granted.

Yes, I can already hear the legislators of at least one party squawking that this will cost money. Of course it would. Not nearly as much, however, as the social and financial cost of putting hundreds of people with no hope on our streets.

But you would have to have the ability to see beyond the next year's budget to figure that out. Taking care of our young people is an issue like that, an issue, in fact, sort of like global warming. (Hint.)


Curious bit of sexism: For weeks, desperate Republicans have bleated that they needed to keep control of the House of Representatives to save the nation from having Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. They've done their damnedest to demonize her as a scary, shrill, far-left bitch from hell.

To my mild amazement, this character assassination has gone virtually unchallenged by the sleepwalking national media. In fact, you'd think the media should be going nuts touting Pelosi, the Democrats' first-ever female congressional leader, especially if she is going to be speaker.

Pelosi is clearly smart and savvy; she'd have to be, to get to the top in the male-dominated world of Washington. Not to mention that she is reasonably attractive, always a plus in a world dominated by television.

Don't be surprised if she actually proves to be far more politically skilled than expected, doesn't try to nationalize our toothbrushes, and develops a following of her own. She is, after all, an Italian-American grandmother still on her first marriage, with no track record of e-mails to young boys.

Speaking of which, something nearly as mysterious is why the Democrats — and the irreverent media — didn't do more to satirize the current speaker. The embarrassing Dennis Hastert is a grossly fat man who walks like he is determined to prove that man really did evolve from the ape, and that he himself isn't too sure about whether he supports the transition. Barely articulate, shuffling and dim, Hastert has been the weakest speaker in at least a century.

There is a reason for that; he was never meant to be the real speaker at all. Hastert was merely supposed to be the errand boy and front man for Tom DeLay. Once Darth Vader was indicted and had to resign, Hastert was rudderless, taking what clues he could from the Bush White House.

The man who played House speaker on TV clearly didn't have a clue what to do when he was warned one of his tribe was salivating over teenage boys. One might almost wonder if it evoked nostalgic memories of Hastert's days as a high school wrestling coach. Someday, if we are lucky, and the planet isn't destroyed first, and if there is still fresh air and water, your children may ask you what the hell was wrong with the American people in the Bush era.

Please write if you figure out an answer.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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