In most states, youths in foster care are on their own when they turn 18.
That's because federal funding for payments to foster parents and group homes is cut off when foster kids reach 18, leaving those who have not been adopted or returned to their families to fend for themselves, with little state support.
Two states are footing the bill to help foster-care youths who turn 18. Vermont this year became the second state, after Illinois, to use state money to extend its foster-care services to age 21, if a youth chooses to remain in the program.
While other states have adopted programs to help youths who are "emancipated" from foster care without permanent homes, states say their options are limited without federal funding.
Federal matching funds could become available to states under the Foster Care Continuing Opportunities Act (S. 1512) , proposed by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The bill is aimed at helping states provide essential foster-care services such as food, housing and legal help to age 21. Without this kind of support, Boxer said, "the future for foster youth, once emancipated, is often bleak."
"One of the most important factors in whether a person succeeds in life is whether they have a family they can depend on to help them," said Julie Farber of Children's Rights , a national watchdog group. If states fail to either reunify children with their families or find them permanent adopted families, "the least they can do is continue to support them through their transition to adulthood," she said.
For those living in group homes, "kick out" happens within days of their 18 th birthday, explained Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition , an advocacy group for children. "They sometimes end up sitting on a curb with their belongings in a black trash bag and nowhere to go," she said.
Kristal McCoy, 23, who spent eight years in the foster-care system, became homeless at the end of her freshman year at California State University, Hayward, and started "couch surfing" with friends or relatives. Although the stress took a toll on her grades, McCoy graduated and now has a full-time job at the California Youth Connection , which lobbies for increased state support for foster youths.
McCoy beat the odds, but many others don't.
Of more than 24,000 youths who leave foster care each year without a family, one in four is incarcerated within the first two years, according to a new report - Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own - by a project of the The Pew Charitable Trusts that is pushing for changes in how the federal government funds foster care. The Trusts also funds Stateline.org, a news site that does not engage in advocacy.
One in five becomes homeless at some time after age 18; only 58 percent complete high school, compared to 87 percent of youths in the general population; and only 3 percent earn college degrees, compared to 28 percent in the general population, according to the study.
While the total number of children in foster care has decreased over the past decade, the number of teens who "age out" of the program without finding permanent homes has increased 41 percent since 1998, the report found.
In response, states are finding new ways to continue supporting these vulnerable youths, despite the lack of federal money. All states provide some level of assistance to youths who leave the foster-care system, but only Illinois, the District of Columbia and now Vermont maintain formal foster care, said Gary Stangler of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative , a foundation that supports programs for youths leaving foster care.
In most states, foster kids who reach their teens without being adopted are offered courses on "independent living." They learn a variety of life skills such as how to open a checking account and budget living expenses, what to wear to a job interview and how to get a driver's license - since many states do not allow foster kids to drive. They also learn how to take advantage of other state, local and nonprofit assistance - such as temporary housing programs - once they leave foster care.
At least 18 states offer Medicaid health-care benefits to youths up to age 21, and all states provide some housing, counseling, scholarships and career training through a $140 million federal grant known as the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.
In addition, states are starting to find mentors - or "lifelong family connections" - for youths who have not found permanent families, said Stangler. This gives young adults someone they can call for advice, spend the holidays with, and in some cases, get financial assistance from, he said.
McCoy said she took advantage of independent-living classes before she graduated from high school, and it made all the difference. A friend who did not attend the classes had "a horrible kick out and had no idea what to do next," she said.
While extending the age of foster care has few critics, most say it is only part of the solution. Unless states do more to find kids permanent homes and prepare them for adulthood, they could end up just as vulnerable at 21 as they are at 18, said Nixon from the National Foster Care Coalition.
Advocates for extending foster care say states would spend less money helping youths between 18 and 21 than bailing them out later.
"Getting these kids to services they need to heal and be better prepared for adulthood is a wiser investment than having them end up in the criminal justice system or needing other types of assistance down the road," said Rutledge Hutson of the Center for Law and Social Policy , a national nonprofit group that works on issues affecting low-income people.
States differ widely in the percentage of foster kids that leave the program at 18 without a permanent family. Connecticut and Alabama have the lowest rates at 1.9 percent and 1.6 percent respectively, while Virginia (21 percent), Maine (20 percent) and Illinois (16 percent) have the highest rates. Experts say failure to find placements is largely due to a shortage of trained social workers.
McCoy dealt with several social workers during her years in foster care, but she says the one assigned to her from age 15 to 18 helped her the most. "She still sends me gifts," she said. Without her, McCoy said she might not have pursued the independent-living classes that helped her get where she is today.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau , about half of young adults ages 18 to 24 in the United States live at home with their parents.
"When we're talking about our own kids, we understand that the transition to adulthood is lengthy and they often leave and come back home. We need to provide a similar experience for kids aging out of foster care," Nixon said. "Legally, we are their parents," she said.