Approximately 20,000 youth "age out" of the foster-care system each year nationally. Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, 31 U.S.C. & 42 U.S. These are youth who, because of allegations of abuse or neglect, have been separated from their families for their protection and for whom no permanent plan was successfully implemented. Although the goal of the foster-care system is to reunify youth with their parents, when children cannot be safely reunified, permanence through adoption or legal guardianship becomes the goal. Unfortunately, there are still far too many youth for whom the promise of permanence is not realized. Youth still in long-term foster care at the age of majority—18, 19, or 20, depending on jurisdiction—who then age out of foster care face significant challenges as they transition into adulthood.
By definition, youth in foster care have experienced some sort of trauma, generally through abuse, abandonment, or neglect by their parents. In addition, the experience of foster care itself can be traumatizing to youth, as they must cope with frequent moves, changing schools, and, often, ongoing disappointment from remaining in out-of-home care. Older youth are more likely to live in group homes or institutions—the least "family-like" settings." Mark Courtney, "The Transition to Adulthood for Youth 'Aging Out' of the Foster Care System," in On Your Own without a Net: The Transitions to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations, (D. Wayne Osgood, et al, ed., 2005). Youth who age out without family support struggle on many fronts when they exit care.
- More than one fifth of former foster youths experienced homelessness for one day or more within a year of aging out, compared to the national statistic of 1 percent per year.
- Over 50 percent of foster-care alumni have at least one mental-health diagnosis; 25 percent are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Foster-care alumni obtain a GED instead of a high-school diploma at nearly six times the rate of the general population; less than 2 percent of former foster youth complete a bachelor's degree.
- The employment rate among alumni who are eligible to work is 80 percent, compared to the national average of 95 percent; the rate of former foster youth receiving cash aid is five times higher than the national average.
Casey Family Programs, Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study (2005).
Additionally, youth who never reunify with their families are unlikely to have a mentor or any long-term adult connection. Youth who fall on hard times have no safety net and no financial or emotional support.
The Safety Net
Title IV-E of the Social Security Act enables each state to provide foster care and transitional independent living programs for children in out-of-home care. 42 U.S.C. Section 670. In 1999, Title IV-E was amended to include the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act. This act provided funding to states to assist youth in making the transition from foster care to independent living. The act encourages and funds programs that offer youth in out-of-home care educational opportunities, vocational and employment training, training in daily living skills, substance-abuse prevention, preventative-health activities, and connections with mentors or "dedicated adults." The act also provides services and support for youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who have transitioned out of the foster care and probation systems. The act's stated purpose is to "provide financial, housing, counseling, employment, education, and other appropriate support and services to former foster care recipients . . . to complement their own efforts to achieve self-sufficiency and to assure that program participants recognize and accept their personal responsibility for preparing for and then making the transition from adolescence to adulthood." Currently, funding for this independent living program is $140 million per year. Government Accountability Office, HHS Actions Could Improve Coordination of Services and Monitoring of States' Independent Living Programs (2004).
Funding is distributed to states based on their share of the national foster-care population. States must provide a 20 percent match to be eligible for the funds. Under the act, states are required to use some portion of their funds for assistance and services for older youth who have left care. States are also permitted to use up to 30 percent of their funds for room and board for youth between the ages of 18 and 21. The act also permits states to expand Medicaid coverage to former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21. Cash aid is made available to youth attending post-secondary school. Each state is given discretion over how to use its funds. As such, services provided to foster youth vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. To receive funding, states are required to present a multiyear plan describing the design and implementation of programs in accordance with the act, as well as annual reports describing services provided to youth. These plans and reports are submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees these funds.
To effectively advocate for services for youth in your jurisdiction, it is important to be familiar with the plan enumerating what services are available, as well as any additional regulations enacted by the states that dictate how funds are to be spent. For example, in California, these funds are overseen by the Department of Social Services, which publishes a Manual of Policies and Procedures. Section 31 of this manual details the eligibility requirements, the services available, and a framework under which the individual counties are to provide transitional services to youth. Additional funding sources may also tie programs to different regulations. For example, transitional housing may be funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which promulgates regulations. It is through these regulations that states can be held accountable for providing services to transitioning youth in accordance with federal law.
More recently, the Federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (Fostering Connections) amends Sections B and E of Title IV of the Social Security Act, making it possible for states to significantly strengthen the safety net. For states choosing to opt into the program by enacting enabling legislation, Title IVE foster care funds can be claimed for young people up to age 21 who meet one of five criteria. States have the option to extend foster care and adoption assistance programs to any child up to age 21 if the individual is:
- completing secondary education or earning an equivalent credential,
- enrolled in an institution that provides post-secondary or vocational education,
- participating in a program to promote or remove barriers to employment,
- employed for at least 80 hours per month, or
- incapable of doing these activities due to a medical condition.
For older youth and their advocates, aside from the obvious benefit of financial support until age 21, perhaps the most exciting piece of Fostering Connections relates to the creation of the supervised independent-living placement (SILP) category and the ability of the agency to designate the youth as his or her own payee. Fostering Connections recognizes that the restrictions placed on young people living in congregate care and even in traditional foster homes unintentionally prevent them from gaining the necessary experiences to prepare them for adulthood. SILP allows youth to receive financial support, court oversight, and continued social services support while living independently in college housing, an apartment, or shared housing. By providing young adults with increasing levels of both responsibility and independence, Fostering Connections creates real-life opportunities for youth to learn decision-making skills and gain experience in everything from grocery shopping to dating to maintaining employment. It does so, however, while still providing the space all young people need to learn from their mistakes.
Fostering Connections also promotes family connections for children by providing federal support to states for the Guardianship Assistance Program (GAP) and identifying and notifying relatives that a child has been removed from his or her parent's home. This provision will allow more older youth to find much-needed permanence and stability with family members who might have otherwise been unable to care for them.
All adolescents face challenges as they become adults, learning how to cope with the requirements of jobs or school, living on their own, and becoming their own person. However, most young adults have parents or family members that have taught them over their lifetime, preparing them to spread their wings and go on their own. Once these youth reach adulthood, they still rely on parents and family for advice and as a safety net when they hit a bump in the road.
Foster youth typically grow up without opportunities to take essential steps toward gaining independence and developing the skills necessary to be a responsible, productive adult. The sobering statistics noted above demand that social workers, lawyers, court-appointed special advocates (CASA), and others charged with serving foster children ensure that all youth receive more complete services to assist them in the move into adulthood and in standing on their own.
According to Sarah Geenen, Ph.D., and Laurie Powers, Ph.D, authors of Transition Planning for Foster Youth with Disabilities: Are We Falling Short?, and Pew Charitable Trusts's Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own (2007), the most effective practices for transitional programs include the following.
Appoint and train educational surrogates and assist youth in obtaining a standard diploma rather than a modified diploma. Because foster youth move or transfer schools more often than other students, schools often channel them into alternative programs with modified diplomas that may present problems with employment or higher education. Pushing schools to provide the needed services to foster youth requires determination and training regarding the available programs and funding. It also requires consistent educational surrogates who can hold education rights for the youth whose parents are unable to do so. These surrogates should follow the youth if he or she changes schools to ensure the youngster receives credit for work at prior schools and continuity of services.
Train professionals from a youth-directed perspective. Organizations such as California Youth Connections partner with schools of social work, child-welfare organizations, the judicatory, CASA and legal-services providers to share their experiences as part of a comprehensive training model.
Involve youth in making their transition plan; make it individualized and youth centered. Develop an individualized plan for each youth, rather than filling in a boilerplate plan. The plan should include not only broad goals, but also specific action steps for the youth and service providers, including timelines and measureable outcomes. The plan should identify a responsible adult other than the youth to monitor progress and ensure services are available to the youth.
Coordinate transition planning between agencies, including social services, special education and transition programs. Too often, each agency makes its own transition plan for a youth with no involvement from other professionals working with the youth. This leaves the youth pointed in different directions, duplicates some services, and fails to provide an individualized plan for that youth. If a youth has an individual education plan through his or her school district or any other agency, the goals in that plan should mirror the goals created by the Department of Social Services. Plans should be updated regularly to ensure that the goals set forth are both current and comprehensive.
Training should center on self-determination, self-advocacy, and independent living. The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Ages 23 and 24 found that, looking back, only one quarter of the young people surveyed reported that they felt "very" prepared to be self-sufficient when they exited foster care and nearly one third reported that they felt "not very" or "not at all" prepared. Independent-living skills training for foster youth should include how to set goals and make plans to reach those goals, how to identify and access services, and how to advocate for themselves. Additionally, youth need to learn basic life skills such as preparing a résumé, completing a job application or apartment application, employment and interview skills, planning a budget, understanding credit and credit scores, and opening a bank account. Courtney, M., et al, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 23 and 24. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago (2010).
Foster youth should have access to and education regarding reproductive health and family planning. It is well documented that foster youth experience consensual sex at an earlier age than their non-foster youth peers and are at much higher risk for becoming pregnant. The Midwest Evaluation found that foster youth first experienced sexual intercourse at age 16 compared to age 17 in the general population, that 77 percent of female former foster youth compared to 40 percent of their non-foster youth peers had experienced at least one pregnancy, and 61 percent compared to 28 percent of the males reported fathering at least one child. The responsibilities of parenthood at a young age add to the already overwhelming challenges to successful independence already faced by former foster youth.
Foster youth should receive comprehensive education regarding reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases and infections, HIV, family planning, and where to access necessary medical services including birth control, prenatal care, and other related medical and mental-health services.
Person-centered career planning and work experience should be tailored to the youth's career interests. Focusing on the direction the youth wants to take in his or her career allows the youth to have a voice in his or her future and will likely bring more involvement from the youth. Too often, programs have a one-size-fits-all approach that does not work for many young adults. Foster youth rarely have the opportunity to obtain summer internships or part-time employment—both of which provide valuable job skills and preparation for successful entry into the workforce.
Participation in extracurricular activities and general education is important. Foster youth may not have had the benefit of involvement in sports, drama, music, or other positive extracurricular activities. As a result, when they become adults, they have not developed interests in healthy or creative pursuits and may end up getting involved with drugs and alcohol or other unhealthy activities as their main entertainment. Working with youth to develop hobbies and interests while in foster care, or just introducing them to new activities, may be the bridge to a lifetime of positive interactions.
Young adults need a strong connection to a caring adult that they can call on when a problem or question arises or simply to share the day's news. Foster youth often do not have the lifelong connection that families provide and may need assistance to develop such resources. A youth who has aged out may not know how to fill out a job application or a tax return; simply having someone to call can alleviate a significant amount of stress for a young adult. Even more significantly, a permanent connection can give a former foster youth a place to eat dinner during the holiday season or a place to call home during school vacations when college dorms are often closed. When seeking out mentors, all avenues should be explored, including formal mentoring programs along with teachers, community members, and the family of origin.
Each youth will have different needs for support as he or she transitions to adulthood. One youth may need assistance to obtain financial aid for college; another may need assistance to obtain the deposit for a first apartment or for transportation funds to get to work until he or she begins to receive regular income. Those individual needs should be assessed, and a plan should be developed with the youth's input. Financial assistance should not come in the form of a reimbursement for expenses, as the youth will often not be able to put forth money initially. Additionally, emergency funds should be available for youth who need temporary shelter or food.
Once youth emancipate from foster care, they often seek out their biological family with idealized visions of the assistance they can provide. A 2008–2009 study of over 700 former foster youth found that "21 percent of the young adults [interviewed] were living with their biological parents or other relatives." Courtney, M., et al, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 23 and 24. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago (2010). Similarly, 81 percent of the 23- and 24-year-olds interviewed in the Midwest Evaluation reported having at least weekly contact with a member of the biological family. As a youth begins transition planning, it may benefit him or her to include family members in that planning so that the youth has a realistic picture of his or her family's ability or desire to provide assistance. Even when the youth's family cannot provide financial assistance or housing, it may be possible to help the youth and the family identify what they can provide. Something as simple as a connection to family members who can share special occasions or offer moral support and advice can make a world of difference to a young person who is completely alone.
In every case, service professionals need to have higher expectations for themselves, the youth with whom they work, and other service providers. Too often, we expect minimal participation and achievement from foster youth, and they live up to our expectations. Conversely, when everyone expects more from young adults, they often rise to those expectations, surprising even themselves with what they can accomplish. Social workers and attorneys need to be held to the same standard; every decision we make on behalf of our clients is potentially life-changing and should be treated as such.
Youth who age out of foster care should have access to other former foster youth. Former foster youth can act as youth advocates for those newly out of care, connecting them with the services and support they need. Additionally, these peer-to-peer connections can provide the youth with support from an individual who has been in the same position and understands the hardships that he or she may be facing as he or she enters the world of adulthood.
Putting these practices into place at every level will provide better outcomes for the youth we serve and may even allow them to realize the unspoken promise of a better life than when they were first brought into the foster-care system. Preparing their child to go out into the world ready to "grab the brass ring" is every parent's responsibility and one that the child-welfare system has a moral and ethical duty to embrace.
Keywords: litigation, children's rights, transitioning youth, foster care, aging out