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New bridges to life after foster care

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The house, in many ways, seems too big for two.

Set in the new Pembrook Farms subdivision near Atlanta, the 3,000-square-foot two-story with the stone entrance has several empty rooms and, in places, bedsheets for drapes. Katrina Lawson, its new owner, isn't sure what to do with at least two rooms. Maybe a computer room for her daughter? "I don't know," she says.

For Ms. Lawson, there's a certain irony in her newfound status as homeowner. A former foster child who bounced from home to home, she is delighted finally, at age 24, to sink her roots into one place. She recently became one of the first in the nation to complete a new program aimed at helping foster kids who've "aged out" of state custody buy homes and other "major life assets" such as cars.

But Lawson, now a Fulton County sheriff's deputy, is also finding that her roomy new quarters require a mental adjustment. The $200,000 house is so spacious that it sometimes feels lonely, not unlike the childhood she still struggles to put behind her.

The program, funded primarily by the Jim Casey Foundation, is part of a movement to better address the needs of foster children as they exit state care, usually at age 18.

"Kids are struggling in our systems, and there is an obligation that [states and social service organizations] are increasingly meeting that it's no longer OK to say, 'Bye, have a good life,'" says Sue Christie, deputy executive director at the American Public Human Services Association in Washington. States "have gone to town to really stabilize these kids" after they age out of foster cares.

Driving the concern about the post- foster-care experience are statistics showing that states, acting in their role as "parent" to children found to be neglected or abused, are often not doing much better at child-rearing than the biological families.

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