Of the 11,000 children in Georgia’s foster care system, over 700 people age out every year when they turn 18. A new tax credit will allow state residents to allocate funds to young people as they transition into adulthood, when a focus on access to higher education.
Passed in 2022, the “Fostering Success Act” established a $20 million qualified foster child donation credit program. The money, which is distributed to various nonprofits operating aging-out programs, targets people ages 18-25 who still need support.
To access the money, nonprofits need Georgia taxpayers to apply for the tax credit before the deadline on Dec. 31, 2023. Leaders from the tax credit’s affiliated organization encourage residents to start the process by Dec. 8 to make sure approvals get through on time.
If taxpayers don’t apply to reallocate their tax dollars, the money won’t make it to the nonprofits or young adults. Currently, $18.9 million still need to be allocated before the deadline.
Wellroot Family Services, a longstanding welfare organization in Georgia hopes the tax money will fund its ongoing work with the “aged-out” foster care population. Wellroot Chief Executive Officer Allison Ashe said the organization provides the entire continuum of services – and it needs the funds to do so.
“The need is immense, so much that I’m not even sure $20 million is enough, but we certainly need to leverage that $20 million that’s available to us out there right now,” Ashe said.
The tax credit funds education and all related costs, from housing to mental health support. It helps young adults pursue secondary education through traditional colleges or vocational programs in the state. While many young people in need are able to access financial aid, the tax credit can fund additional needs like housing and mental health care.
Ashe stressed that Wellroot takes a holistic approach to what young adults need in that timeframe, particularly when many of them weren’t taught basic life skills during their time in foster care.
“We do everything we can to prepare them to become adults in transition into young adulthood,” Ashe said.
Wellroot’s main program is an apartment complex in Decatur dedicated to aged-out young adults. Current renovations will increase capacity from 10 to 29 young people who live in apartments together while they adjust to roommates, cooking, grocery shopping, laundry and finance management with the help of a life coach. The program teaches hard and soft skills that Ashe says many people take for granted,
For those that don’t need housing, life coaches can help with securing education, transportation and scholarships at local colleges and vocational schools.
“Their life coach really is assigned to working with them on ‘Where are you now, where do you want to be, what are the steps for getting you there and what do you need along the way?’” Ashe said.
Since the tax credit is focused on education, capital projects like the apartment complex renovation won’t be covered. 80 percent of the funds any nonprofit receives from the tax credit must go directly to young people, with the remaining 20 percent going to operating expenses. Ashe hopes the added funding can address existing needs and long term goals to “broaden the scope” of who they help.
Heidi Carr, the executive director of Fostering Success Act, Inc. knows the tax credit application process can be intimidating, but her role is to create awareness and work with taxpayers on how to complete the process.
“If you file a Georgia tax return, you’re paying taxes in Georgia, we don’t typically know where that money is going,” Carr said. “The unique part of a tax credit is you can find a cause that you are you really care about and want to make a difference.”
Carr said the organization acts as a sort of hub for the tax credit, where they collect contributions, handle the paperwork and administer the funds to a list of nonprofits. There are more than 20 organizations in the state qualified to receive funds, including Chris 180, Connection Homes, Lydia’s Place and Wellroot.
While the allocation needs to be paid up front, participants will get a dollar-to-dollar credit later on. There’s currently no limit to how much people, couples and corporations can contribute either.
In her time working with the Fostering Success Act, Carr has worked with young people in need and seen the impacts of the tax credit firsthand. One young man she knew had to drop out of college because he couldn’t afford an expensive calculator for one of his classes. After three weeks, Carr said he was so stressed out the young man gave up on school.
“We’ve come around and he’s back in school and so appreciative, like ‘Y’all changed my life’ and that’s what it is all about, it’s making a difference,” Carr said.
Eshontee Rowe entered Wellroot’s transitional program at 17 years old, where she said she “excelled.” The 26-year-old youth advocate joined the foster care system when she was 15 after her mother could no longer support her due to mental health. She spent a few years moving through group homes and a foster family before settling at the apartment living program.
“Once I came to Wellroot there was a director there at the time, Ebony Harris, and she gave me a chance because my file didn’t look promising,” Rowe said.
Wellroot evaluated Rowe’s knowledge of life skills like cooking and laundry before figuring out her needs.In the program she lived in a studio style apartment where she received skills training while working a job and getting an education. She eventually got a $20,000 scholarship to Albany State University with the help of her education coordinator.
“I give a lot of credit for my success and my transition to college to Wellroot because they ultimately were there and they wrapped around me and really supported me in anything I said I wanted to do,” Rowe said.
The tangible support was vital for Rowe, but so was the sense of community she felt among staff and other young people. Staff members would cook for Thanksgiving and buy residents Christmas gifts every year.
“They made sure that even though we weren’t traditionally at home with our family that we felt like we have family,” Rowe said.
Years after graduating she said there’s still “family vibes” among the staff and former program participants. Even after she left for college, Rowe needed somewhere to stay during school breaks. She worried that without university housing she may fall into homelessness, but Wellroot let her come back and stay in the apartments for holiday and summer breaks.
Rowe took her time at Wellroot into her career as a youth advocate, here she uses her lived expertise to connect with other people in foster care.
“I want to make sure that they’re connected because I know there has been plenty of times where I’ve seen people who weren’t caught up in the loop and they missed out on things, or missed out on resources or programs have ended because there wasn’t enough participation,” Rowe said.
The youth advocate said connecting with foster kids is the most rewarding work she’s ever done, particularly when advising organizations on how to better connect with children and teens. Still, she faces some challenges when it comes to the foster care system, from reframing narratives around foster care to money needs.
“I can say a big challenge is making sure that young people are connected and that there’s resources and funding,” Rowe said.
With the tax credit, Rowe hopes people will invest in young people on the front end– rather than the back end. That way, Rowe said people can avoid the “foster care to prison pipeline” and “foster care to poverty pipeline.”
“Innvest in your young leaders, your next set of leaders, and it’ll be a great investment in not only our state but our nation,” Rowe said.
Georgia taxpayers can apply for the tax credit online at fosteringsuccessact.org before the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline.