By Mark E. Courtney
For most young people, the transition to adulthood is a gradual process. Many continue to receive financial and emotional support from their parents or other family members well past age 18. This is in stark contrast to the situation confronting youth who must navigate the transition to adulthood from the U.S. foster care system. Too old for the child welfare system but often not yet prepared to live as independent young adults, the approximately 29,000 foster youth who “age out” of foster care each year are expected to make it on their own long before the vast majority of their peers.
The federal government has long recognized the challenges facing foster youth, providing states with funds to help prepare them for independence since the late 1980s. Federal support for foster youth making the transition to adulthood was enhanced in 1999 with the creation of the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. This legislation doubled available funding to $140 million per year, expanded the age range deemed eligible for services, allowed states to use funds for a broader range of purposes (e.g., room and board), and granted states the option of extending Medicaid coverage for youth who age out of foster care until age 21. Vouchers for post-secondary education and training were also added to the range of federally-funded services and supports potentially available to current and former foster youth making the transition to adulthood. While the services provided through the Chafee Program were a step in the right direction, the fact remains that in all but a few states youth are still summarily discharged from foster care on or around their 18th birthday, rendering them “independent” of foster care, but seldom self sufficient.
That may finally be changing for the better. Recently, there was a fundamental shift toward greater federal responsibility for supporting foster youth during the transition to adulthood. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 extended the age of eligibility for federal reimbursement of foster care from 18 to 21. Beginning this year, states will be able to claim federal reimbursement for the costs of providing foster care until foster youth are 21 years old. To qualify for reimbursement, foster youth age 18 and older must be either completing high school or an equivalent program; enrolled in postsecondary or vocational school; participating in a program or activity designed to promote or remove barriers to employment; employed for at least 80 hours per month; or incapable of doing any of these activities due to a medical condition. They can be living independently in a supervised setting as well as placed in a foster home or group care setting.
This change in federal policy was informed by findings from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (“Midwest Study”), the largest longitudinal study of young people aging out of foster care in the U.S. The Midwest Study paints a sobering picture of the outcomes experienced by foster youth making the transition to adulthood; foster youth fare much worse than their peers in terms of educational attainment, employment, single parenting, economic hardship, and involvement with the criminal justice system. However, the study also suggests that giving foster youth the opportunity to remain in the care of the state to age 21 improves their prospects during the transition to adulthood, including delaying pregnancy, increasing the likelihood that they will attend college, and increasing later earnings. A benefit-cost analysis of extending care to age 21 found that the benefits of such a policy likely outweigh the costs by more than two-to-one.
Of course, given the current fiscal crisis facing state governments it remains far from clear that states will take up the option of extending foster care to 21, even with the new federal funding. That is why California’s decision last month to extend foster care to 21 in that state is so important. On September 30th, over a week before the state would even have a budget for the current fiscal year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the California Fostering Connections to Success Act. This law extends the option of staying in foster care to age 21 to nearly one-fifth of all foster youth aging out of care in the U.S. California’s lead may be very important to the efforts of advocates for foster youth in other states. After all, if California can afford to provide support to its foster youth as they become young adults during these tough economic times, perhaps other states can also muster the political will to do the right thing!
Mark E. Courtney is Professor of Social Service Administration and a researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He is co-editor of Residential Care of Children: Comparative Perspectives.