Many significant improvements have been made to the foster care system over the years, and across the country, case workers and court officials have worked to facilitate better outcomes for children in the government's care. Yet the number of foster youth aging out of care keeps rising. In 2006, the latest year for which data are available, 26,181 youth aged out of care, a 119 percent increase since 1998. On average, youth who aged out of foster care in 2006 spent five years in the system, compared with less than two years for children who left through reunification, adoption, guardianship or other means.
Foster care is a critical safety net for many neglected and abused children. Federal law directs case workers to ensure that children in foster care are returned home safely or, when that is not possible, provide safe, permanent families through adoption or guardianship. But the number of youth “aging out” or emancipating from foster care without a family continues to rise at a record pace. According to the latest available figures, more than 26,000 foster youth left the system on their own in 2006—up 119 percent since the federal government began collecting data in 1998.i About 9 percent of all children leaving foster care nationally aged out; however, in some states, the percentage is significantly higher, including Virginia (32 percent), Maine (22 percent) and Massachusetts (19 percent).ii Overall, nearly 200,000 youth have aged out of the foster care system without families they could rely on.iii Appendices A and B summarize these findings. The consequences are stark:
- In one study, 25 percent of the foster care alumni who had aged out did not have a high school diploma or GED.iv Less than 2 percent had completed a college education, compared with 23 percent in the general population, another study found.
- Over half of foster care alumni who had aged out had experienced homelessness or unstable housing and nearly 30 percent had been incarcerated.
- Foster care alumni who had aged out experienced disproportionate rates of unemployment or underemployment and were more likely than the general population to lack health insurance.
The federal government must act to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in foster care and prevent their aging out with no family of their own. Specifically:The Adoption Incentive Program should be reauthorized and updated so that states receive the full amount authorized—$43 millionviii—to improve necessary child welfare services.All children, regardless of their birth parents’ income, should be eligible for federal adoption support when they leave foster care to join adoptive families.Federal support should be available for relative caregivers who become legal guardians of children in foster care.Congress should provide tribes direct access to federal Title IV-E foster care funding so they can provide critical services to American Indian children within their communities.With these changes, the foster care system will be better equipped to place every child with a safe, permanent family and prevent youth from aging out of foster care on their own.