States Tackle ‘Aging Out’ of Foster Care

peopleCeleste Bodner

Paige Moore Drew, 20, a sophomore at Sacramento State University, and Jazmin Favela, 18, who attends Cabrillo Community College, pose at the 7th annual Foster Youth Education Summit, held this week in Pasadena, which they attended as California Youth Ambassadors. Both have chosen to stay in foster care until they turn 21. (Celeste Bodner)

This story was updated to correct who began the "Midwest Study" and who said states almost need a parallel foster care system for older youths.

Two and a half years ago, Jazmin Favela ran away from a troubled home life. She took off without a change of clothes, crashing wherever she could. When her picture started showing up on “missing” posters in her California town, she figured she’d better turn herself in. And that, she said, is how she entered the foster care system.

Now, at 18, Jazmin is living semi-autonomously in a foster home, taking care of her 2-month-old baby and attending community college part time. She has dreams of becoming a preschool teacher and majoring in psychology. To make those dreams a reality, she said, her best option is to stay in the foster care system until she turns 21.

“I’m going to stay and receive those services,” Jazmin said. “It’s going to be easier for me to get on my feet. If I just jump straight out on my own with my daughter, it’ll be hard. I won’t be able to support her financially.”

A few years ago, Jazmin wouldn’t have had that option. With a few exceptions, foster youth traditionally aged out of the system at 18, with no backup services to ease them into adulthood. More often than not, it made for an abrupt transition for youth without a parental safety net. But thanks to the Foster Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (FCA), a federal law enacted in 2008, states can now extend foster care benefits to youth up to age 21 and receive federal funding for it.

So far, 21 states have expanded benefits with federal support to youth up to age 21, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Indiana has extended foster care up to age 20. Florida, Wisconsin and Delaware have opted out of federal funding, but have their own programs using state dollars.

States have a vested interest in providing care to the approximately 26,000 foster kids who age out of the system each year. Research shows that young adults without a permanent family fare far worse than other youth. More than one in five ends up homeless after age 18, while one in four becomes involved in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care. Fifty-eight percent of foster youth will graduate high school by age 19, compared to 87 percent of all 19-year-olds.

Less than 2 percent will graduate college by age 25. Seventy-one percent of young women become pregnant before they reach 21, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St. Louis-based foundation. Each cohort of young people leaving foster care costs society an additional $8 billion in welfare, Medicaid, lost wages and incarceration costs compared to people of the same age who were not in foster care, according to the Jim Casey initiative.

Signs of Good Results

States still are working on programs, but the federal law includes certain requirements for staying in foster care past age 18. Young adults who do so must be completing high school or in GED program; be enrolled part-time or full-time in a university or college or vocational school; participating in a job training program; employed at least 80 hours a month or have a documented medical condition that prevents them from working or attending school. States that receive federal money are required to track the progress of each foster youth receiving services or pay a penalty.

It’s too soon to measure the success of extended foster care. State efforts are “a work in progress,” according to Amy Dworsky, a research fellow at Chapin Hall, a research and policy center at the University of Chicago that focuses on child welfare issues.

But indications are investing in extended foster care can have good results.

For nearly 30 years, older youth in Illinois had the option of remaining in foster care, years before other states picked up on the trend, with the state paying for it. (New York and the District of Columbia were the next in line to implement some form of extended care.)

In 2002, researchers at Chapin Hall began tracking the outcome of kids with extended care in Illinois versus those who didn’t have it Iowa and Wisconsin. The study, dubbed the “Midwest Study,” found that foster youth who stayed in the system until age 21 had much better outcomes and were twice as likely to pursue post-secondary school education. 

As a result of that research, advocates began a national push to expand services to kids coming of age without a permanent family, according to Hope Cooper, a consultant who worked on the federal legislation effort. Although the FCA passed in 2008, states couldn’t take advantage of the federal funding until 2010. Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington state, Delaware, California, the District of Columbia, Alabama, Alaska,  and Illinois were the first to sign up for the program, according to the NCSL.

A Parallel Foster Care System

Adopting an extended care model can be complicated for states. In most instances, it involves a two-step process. First, states pass legislation extending foster care. Then they have to submit a plan for approval to the Children’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States have the flexibility to craft plans tailored to their populations. The key, child advocates say, is taking into account that caring for an 18-year-old is very different from taking care of an infant.

“You almost need to build a second foster care system,” Cooper said. “This is a system that has to serve kids that are pregnant, kids that want to live alone, and they have to voluntarily join (or stay in) foster care. It’s almost a parallel foster care system.”

Some states, such as California, built flexibility into the system, providing foster youth with new housing options, according to Jennifer Rodriguez, a former foster care recipient turned attorney and executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. Foster youth can live with a host family, in an apartment with a supervising adult, or live alone in dormitories or an apartment with regular supervision from a case worker.

“We’ve really seen youth take advantage of the opportunity to stay in care, to get continued resources, to make the transition to adulthood a little smoother,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve offered a lot of young people stability in that period of young adulthood when you realize, ‘This is what it’s like to be on my own.’ Developmentally, it’s the equivalent of going from toddler to preschool.”

The State as Parent

Young people from foster care face the same issues many young adults face. And without help from a parental figure in trying to find a place to live, getting into or staying in college, or buying a car, their lives can unravel quickly.

“It creates a high level of anxiety,” said Celeste Bodner, executive director of Foster Club, a network and resource center for foster youth. “A lot of young people in foster care suffer from sleep issues, anxiety, a lot of stomach issues, stuff that needs medical attention. It’s very clearly linked with traveling to adulthood without a safety net.”

Because of California’s extended foster care system, Paige Moore Drew now has a safety net that will take her through college.

Paige has been in the foster care system since she was 11, jumping from foster home to foster home. In high school, Paige decided that college was going to be her “ticket out of there.” 

Thanks to the Guardian Scholars Program, an extensive support program for college-bound foster youth, Paige, now 20, is a sophomore at Sacramento State University, working part-time and living in an apartment with her boyfriend and dog. In addition, she receives a stipend of $838 each month from the state of California. She checks in weekly with an assigned mentor.

“I knew if I stayed in foster care, I would get a lot of services,” Paige said. “If I were alone, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Explore