The number of young people leaving the U.S. foster care system without a permanent family is at an all-time high, according to a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts' Kids Are Waiting campaign and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.
The report, Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own, found that although the total number of children in foster care has decreased, the number who "age out" of the system has grown by 41% since 1998. In total, more than 165,000 young people aged out of foster care between 1998 and 2005 – nearly 25,000 in 2005 alone.
"When children are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, we, through our government agencies, assume responsibility for their protection and care. We have failed these children if they 'age out' of foster care without a safe, permanent family they can count on," said Jim O'Hara, managing director, health and human services, The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Every day we do not reform foster care, we fail 67 more young people who exit foster care completely on their own."
Studies have documented the serious challenges facing many youth who age out of foster care. One in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care, 1 in 5 will become homeless, only half will graduate from high school, and less than 3 percent receive college degrees.
"I turned 18 a month before I graduated from high school. The day after graduation, I was kicked out of my foster home, where I had been living for nearly two years," said Nicole Dobbins, FosterClub representative, who spoke at the Capitol Hill briefing where the report was released.
Dobbins spent seven years in foster care before aging out. "I was 18, a high school graduate on my way to college in the fall, and homeless," she said.
Based on research data and focus group interviews with youth who have aged out or will soon age out of foster care, the report provides the latest state-by-state information about youth who leave foster care. The ten states with the highest percentages of youth who age out are: Virginia, Maine, Illinois, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington DC, Kansas, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and California. Those states, plus Maryland, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Ohio all had more than 10% of their total foster care population "age out" of the system without a permanent family.
Further, the report found that youth who age out of foster care have spent nearly five years in the system. The national average time in foster care for all children and youth is 2.5 years.
"Every child in foster care deserves a family, and the need doesn't end at age 18," said Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, who spoke at today's briefing. "The desire for family is hard-wired in us. These young people know there is no substitute for that unconditional support family provides. Just like all of us, they need someone to turn to as they grow into adults, and our foster care system should be helping them find that family."
"Changes to the current federal foster care financing structure could reduce the likelihood that children will languish in foster care and age out without a family," stated Bill Frenzel (R-MN), Chairman of the national, nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care and former Ranking Minority Member of the House Budget Committee. "The Pew Commission recommended a flexible, reliable source of federal funding to enable states to keep families together, avoid placement of children in foster care, and, when they must enter the system, move children more swiftly out to permanent families."
The report was released at a briefing featuring former foster youth from across the nation who shared their experiences of aging out of foster care. Additional speakers included Joan Ohl, Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Helen Jones Kelley, Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and a member of the Pew Commission; and Gary Stangler, executive director, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and a member of the Pew Commission. The briefing was part of National Foster Care Month and was hosted by Kids Are Waiting, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and FosterClub. Before and after the event, hundreds of current and former foster youth, accompanied by foster parents from across the country as part of the National Foster Parents Association conference, met with members of Congress and their staff to raise awareness about the need for foster care reform.