States should extend foster-care services to youths until age 21 because young adults who leave the child-welfare system at 18 face steeper challenges in becoming independent adults than those who stay in foster care, a national study unveiled last week says.
Young people who “age out” of the child-welfare system at 18 are three times more likely to be unemployed and not enrolled in school than young people overall, according to the Chapin Hall Center for Children, based at the University of Chicago, which conducted the study. They’re also much more likely to struggle financially, suffer from mental illnesses or drug or alcohol disorders, bear children they can’t take care of, or end up in prison.
“By and large, they’re not ready to be on their own yet,” said Mark E. Courtney, a co-author of the study and the director of the Chapin Hall center. He presented the findings last week to congressional staff members, state agencies, research groups, and advocacy organizations in Washington.
The report, “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 19,” is available from the Chapin Hall Center for Children. (Requires free registration.)
Researchers interviewed 736 foster youths ages 17 and 18 in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and 603 of them again when they turned 19. The authors plan a third round of interviews when the young people turn 21.
The new report is described as the largest and most comprehensive in 20 years to address how wards of the state make the transition into adulthood. Each year, about 20,000 young adults, most of them 18, leave foster care. Almost all states emancipate people from the child-welfare system at age 18 or so, Mr. Courtney said. Only a very few, such as Illinois, extend foster care to age 21.
“Our findings call into question the wisdom of federal and state policies that result in foster youth being discharged from care at or shortly after their 18th birthday,” the report says.
In response to the report, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives last week that he said would help foster-care youths go to college. It would simplify the financial-aid process and encourage colleges to mentor and recruit foster-care youths.
The Chapin Hall study is a vivid snapshot of the struggle such teenagers—many of whom have been abused or neglected as children—experience as they navigate their way toward adulthood, said Gary J. Stangler, the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St. Louis-based national foundation that helps foster-care youths. It helped finance a documentary on the topic, titled “Aging Out,” that is scheduled to air May 26 on PBS stations.
“Permanence and some stability in their lives, that’s missing … for these kids,” Mr. Stangler said. “So the odds of other bad things happening go way up.”
Criminal involvement is one of them. Twenty-eight percent of the young adults studied had been arrested. That proportion rose to almost 34 percent for those out of foster care.
One-third of the young people—including those still in foster care—suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and alcohol and/or drug abuse. And the youths out of foster care had a higher lifetime prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse or dependence than their peers in foster care, the study found.
They also tended to face greater economic hardship, with those out of foster care the worse off. Almost 19 percent of those out of foster care couldn’t pay their rent, nearly 14 percent had been homeless, and almost 12 percent sometimes or often went hungry.
Federal and state services to help foster-care youths move into adulthood are relatively new. In 1986, Congress made federal funds available to help foster-care youths graduate from high school, train for a career, or find housing.
But that provision wasn’t enough, as the number of foster-care youths grew and only a “fraction” of them received the federal assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 1999, Congress passed the Foster Care Independence Act, which introduced the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. That doubled the annual federal allocation to states to $140 million, and Congress later approved up to $60 million annually for postsecondary and training vouchers to those young adults.