BANGOR, Maine — Country music singer and songwriter Jimmy Wayne on Tuesday criticized the governor and advocated allowing recipients up to age 21 to receive foster care benefits.
Wayne, who grew up in foster care in North Carolina and now lives in Tennessee, served as keynote speaker during the Maine Affordable Housing Conference at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
During the speech, which opened with a song, Wayne said he had been told the governor believes that because he was able to pull himself out of poverty, others should do the same.
“Well, not necessarily, pal,” he said. “Because you didn’t get there by yourself. None of us got here by ourselves. … You didn’t become the governor by yourself, so you have to help these people, and you have to help the kids for sure.”
A message seeking comment from LePage was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.
The songwriter’s comments come as the state sees an uptick in foster children.
As of Wednesday, there were 1,966 children in the system, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That compares with 1,506 in 2012.
In Maine, youth age out of foster care at age 18; however, they can continue until age 21 if they agree to participate in a continuing education program such as college or vocational school or even completing a high school diploma.
As of Wednesday, there were 90 foster care recipients who had made the agreement known as V9 status. A total of 78 youths aged out of the foster care system during the 2014-15 fiscal year though.
Wayne told the roughly 400 attendees about his own childhood, including his mother’s imprisonment when he was 12 and how his mother and stepfather abandoned him in another state at age 13 as his stepfather fled the law for shooting a person.
He also described his experiences in foster care, saying he moved frequently from home to home and eventually ran away at the age of 16, becoming homeless.
Only through the assistance of key teachers and an elderly couple who hired him to mow lawns and eventually allowed him to move into their home was Wayne able to complete high school and go on to community college, where he earned a degree in criminal justice.
He served four years as a prison guard before heading to Nashville to pursue his music career. Since then, he has had two songs reach the top 10 on the Billboard country music charts and another reach the No. 1 slot.
In 2010, he walked from Nashville to Phoenix to raise awareness about teen homelessness and teens aging out of the foster care system.
He advocated extending foster care to 21-year-olds, saying it would save the state money in the long run by reducing the number of prison inmates later.
“There’s a $2 return on every dollar invested,” he said.
According to Wayne, 30,000 children nationwide age out of the system annually.
Asked about extending foster care benefits to recipients as old as 21, Leah Bruns a South Portland foster parent and employee of MaineHousing, said it does have a positive impact.
Foster children who age out of the system at 18 have nowhere to go during the summer between high school and college, decreasing the likelihood they’ll attend college, she said.
Additionally, while many millennials continue struggling to get out of their parents’ homes and support themselves, foster children don’t have the option of staying, she said.
“These guys don’t have that opportunity, so it becomes even more challenging because there’s nobody to fall back on, and they need that,” she said.
The state’s foster care system is in critical need of foster parents because of a huge influx of children coming into the system, she said. As of Tuesday, DHHS reports a total of 1,478 licensed foster families statewide.
In March, DHHS announced there was a shortage of foster and adoptive families relative to the number of children in need of placement. The need is especially great among middle and high-school aged children, it said.
For more information about how to become a foster parent in Maine, visit maine.gov.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.