The numbers of children in foster care has been dropping, thanks to new programs aimed at keeping youngsters with family or boosting adoptions.

But for many, foster care is a way of life - at least until they turn 18 and can begin living on their own.

Most children learn basic life skills, like balancing a checkbook, doing laundry, applying for and keeping a job, shopping for and preparing nutritious foods, through the parents. But those in foster care may not have had that opportunity.

Brandie R. Smith, a life skills counselor for Valley Youth House, works under contract with the Carbon County Children and Youth Services agency to ready these young people for productive adult lives.

That means first learning the skills. Smith travels to foster homes to teach the skills to those young people who are "aging out of" foster care and poised to live on their own. About 20-23 young adults are currently involved in the program, which is voluntary, she said.

Smith spoke of the Adolescents Achieving Independence program at a meeting Thursday of the Interagency Council of Carbon County. The council is composed of representatives of the human service agencies that tend to the needs to county residents.

"I work with 16-21 year olds who are either currently in foster care, or were in foster care or some kind of placement," she said.

Young people can choose to "opt out" of foster care at age 18, or they can stay in until they are 21. The AAI program began two years ago in Carbon County on a part-time basis, Smith said. It is now full-time. The program, which also helps with housing, referrals to other agencies and stipends, is also in place in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Smith's services are still needed, even as the numbers of children in foster care are dropping.

As of March 31, there were 15,920 children in care statewide; 63 of those were in Carbon County, said state Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Elisabeth C. Myers. Between Oct. 1, 2008 and Sept. 30, 2009, 959 children statewide were discharged due to emancipation; five of those discharges occurred in Carbon County, she said.