By Rita Price

Hundreds of Ohio's most traumatized and vulnerable teens should soon have the chance to tap into a few more years of support before they have to make it on their own.

Gov. John Kasich signed a bill into law Monday that extends foster-care eligibility to age 21, adding Ohio to the growing number of states that have decided teens shouldn't automatically age out of the system when they turn 18.

More than 1,000 Ohio foster youths exit foster care each year after their 18th birthdays, with many quickly falling into poverty and homelessness, early parenthood or legal trouble.

"There's a lot of dismal statistics," said Worthington resident Jamole Callahan, who spent six years in foster care. "But we can help improve outcomes for these youths who are aging out. I'm elated."

The Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies and other advocates worked for three years to secure the change, which gives foster youths the option of deciding whether they want additional guidance and assistance as they transition to adulthood. It also applies to teens who are adopted after age 16.

"Many of them really need a plan, not a program," said Sean Reilly, executive director of UMCH Family Services. "They need a plan that is comprehensive and that talks about their housing needs, school needs, trades — whatever that might be. And it needs to include a recognition and supports for what they've been through in their lives."

The law takes effect in 90 days and provides $550,000 for Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to gather recommendations and develop a plan. Implementation is expected in about 18 months, with funding to be determined in the next budget.

First-year costs for the state, not including federal foster money, are estimated at about $9.7 million.

"I will be ever-vigilant about this law," said state Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, who introduced the bill along with Republican Rep. Cheryl Grossman of Grove City. "We need to advocate and remind legislators and, of course, the administration. The most important thing will be the funding in the next budget."

Kasich did not sign the bill in public but spoke at length with Callahan, 36, and with two other former foster youths — 31-year-old Kevinee Gilmore of Cleveland and East Side resident Jermaine Ferguson, 25, who was featured in a recent Dispatch story.

Ferguson and his siblings suffered horrific abuse in Clark and Union counties after they were adopted from foster care as infants and young children. After their adoptive parents were arrested, the children were separated and scattered to different foster homes with varying degrees of support.

"It's sad when you see your sister and you want to help, and there's not even a house for her," Jermaine said of his 20-year-old sibling, who has struggled after aging out of foster care. "I get it; there are funding and other issues. But you're asking kids who are weak financially and emotionally to just move on. It's too much."

The law signed Monday also includes a provision aimed at improving protections for some 67,000 wards who are under court-appointed guardianship. It requires clerks of Ohio's probate courts to give new and current guardians a copy of the guardianship guide that explains the rights of wards.

The guardianship part of the law was prompted by a 2014 Dispatch investigation that uncovered abuses and problems in that system.