We Need to Extend Foster Care So We Stop Leaving Kids Behind Submitted by: The Equity Institute | Terrell L. Strayhorn, PhD
For many school districts and universities, the month of May is a celebration. Students don their caps and gowns as they graduate to bigger and better things. (Congrats to the Class of 2022 worldwide!)
Coincidentally, May is also National Foster Care Month. Rather than being a time to pause and celebrate successes, this month is unfortunately a reminder that the foster care system and the policies that guide it do very little to protect and promote one of our most vulnerable populations.
While high school graduation rates continue to climb nationally with almost 90% of all high schoolers earning their diploma, educational outcomes for youth in foster care tell a completely different story. Over 40% will never step foot on a commencement stage because they have "stopped out" (i.e., temporarily paused their educational pursuits) or dropped out entirely.
Achieving a college degree as a youth formerly in foster care is nearly impossible without significant supportwith just under 5% graduating in a 6-year period. Very few will ever see the inside of a college lecture auditorium, a residence hall, or laboratory.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the more than 400,000 youth in foster care nationally were experiencing a mental health crisis caused by isolation, frequent home and school transitions, and reduced access to basic needs like food, clothing, and technology.
This is a group entering adulthood under-supported and placed at-risk for educational failure without intervention.
TWO DIFFERENT PANDEMICS
Their challenges have only been exacerbated since the onset of the pandemic with older youth in foster care often hit hardest.
While many teens and young adults relied on their family safety nets as they moved back home in 2020, youth in foster care, especially those aging out, were often "left out" or "left behind" without options.
Worse, many older youth relied on an informal network of former teachers, counselors, and other community members to help them navigate early adulthood, which was short-circuited by the pandemic in its earliest days, and still hasn't been fully restored.
More than 20,000 teens and young adults in foster care found themselves in this situation in 2020, and an additional 20,000 in 2021. In most states, few resources extend beyond their 18th birthday, which means they are left on their own to fend for themselves.
With thousands of youth in foster care lacking high school diplomas, and little to no safety net once they age out of the system at 18, many foster care alumni wind up chronically unemployed, incarcerated, and/or homeless. Nearly one in four will experience homelessness at some point in the first four years.
BIPARTISAN POLICY SOLUTIONS THAT OFFER ADDITIONAL SUPPORT
While 18 is legally considered adulthood in the U.S., core decision making skills continue to develop well into the mid-20s. For most teens, 18 is a difficult time to be on your own. As the statistics bear out for youth in foster care with limited education and family support, adulthood at 18 is nearly impossible.
The immediate solution is to expand extended foster care services that ensures easily accessible support through the age of 21. A few states like Oregon, Colorado and Illinois have larger, extended foster care services and even increased eligibility to the age of 23. While those states have taken necessary steps to support youth beyond 18, many states vastly underutilize services, or have such strict parameters, that very few youth over 18 are enrolled.
States where youth remain in foster care until the age of 21 have seen firsthand that three more years provides an opportunity to build a resume, earn a GED or high school diploma, and enroll in vocational training or college courses.
Compared to youth who exit the system at 18, research has shown that youth who remain through the age of 21 are nearly three times less likely to have experienced homelessness and three times more likely to still be enrolled in school.
These successes are, in part, because their safety net has been extended and they have access to critical services like unemployment support, housing, food assistance, mental health counseling and healthcare. In some cases, they are enrolled in programs that connect them with job training, educational support, and health services (e.g., telehealth).
The problem is that too few have access to these types of services.
While these steps will require upfront investment at the state and federal levels, the return will be felt almost immediately. If the 20,000 youth who age out annually get the support they need to be self-sufficient, the personal, societal gains will be long-lasting, in terms of educated citizenry, engaged democratic participants, contributing taxpayers, but most importantly independent adults empowered to live their best life.
Certain states have given us a national model to increase educational attainment and reduce negative outcomes. We just need to step up and give youth in foster care the support they rightfully deserve.
And maybe, just maybe, National Foster Care Month can be a moment we celebrate our successes as a society. Now's the time. We're the ones to do it.