For 10 years, Nevada has helped support former foster youth until they turn 21, providing monthly stipends for rent and living expenses, along with case managers and coaching in life skills. To receive this help, the young people have to agree before their 18th birthdays to remain a “ward” of the juvenile court and to perform on a plan to study, work and find stable housing.
Under “extended foster care” in Nevada, youth cannot return to the supportive program if they’ve been kicked off for letting grades slip or losing a job. Young people can even become ineligible for performing too well — if a judge decided they’ve met the goals on their case plan ahead of schedule.
Now a group of youth services professionals and advocates are coming up with alternatives. In a report released in September, they propose two new pathways for Nevada that could save money for taxpayers and provide enhanced support to a vulnerable population facing unprecedented challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. The new proposals headed to the state Legislature would tap into federal funds that could grow the state’s investment in these foster youth and loosen rules to help more of them access the support they need.
“Most youth not in the system do not leave their biological home until 26, 27, 28, 29,” said Dashun Jackson, a former foster youth who is now the director of children’s safety and welfare policy at the Nevada nonprofit Children’s Advocacy Alliance. Jackson and dozens of others have been working for years to improve the state’s extended foster care program, serving those ages 18, 19 and 20. “This expectation for youth to be successful without the necessary support is not realistic.”
Since 2008, the federal government has offered to help states cover the cost of serving this population through local extended foster care programs. To draw on the federal dollars, states must require participants to attend school or work, or show the court they are unable or working toward an education or employment goal. States must also allow former foster youth to fail the standard, and reapply until they turn 21 — an acknowledgement of the depth of their struggles as well as all the obstacles they face in achieving independent lives.
Now, after a decade of footing the bill to serve roughly 300 older foster youth each year, the Nevada Legislature is evaluating whether tapping into that federal funding could allow them to support more young people through those shaky early-adult years.
Every state but Oklahoma offers some sort of extended foster care package for young people ages 18 through 20. As of 2019, 29 states offered programs that meet federal standards and were eligible for matching funds. The working group studying the issue in Nevada has found the taxpayers could save as much as $3 million in the first three years if the state received federal funds.
Under Nevada’s current program, youth are only eligible to opt in when they turn 18 in foster care, and they can’t reenter once they leave or are kicked out for failure to comply with requirements. The federal version of extended foster care, in contrast, allows young adults to opt in or reenter once they’ve left the program, anytime before their 21st birthday, if they are meeting the education and employment rules or they’ve been exempted.
A recent report from the working group convened by the state Legislature proposed two paths forward to save Nevada money and continue serving the population with an influx of federal funds and potentially less-restrictive rules. Under one scenario, the state would create a program alongside its current one; under the other it would replace it entirely with a program following the more lenient federal standards. Both would save the state similar amounts.
Kate Cantrell, a regional director for the children’s services provider Youth Villages, said whatever changes Nevada makes, it has to amount to more than just a cost savings; it must improve services that hundreds of young people have come to trust and rely on.
Some members of the working group have also stated that whether or not the state teams up with the feds it should allow youth the opportunity to enroll anytime after turning 18 and reenter after leaving.
The Legislature, which just opened its 2021 session this week, is expected to take up this issue though a bill has not yet been introduced.
Advocates for Nevada foster youth want any savings created by tapping into federal funds to be reinvested in existing services like rental assistance and workforce training. Ultimately, they say, those savings could be used to expand the age eligibility and help former foster youth 21 years and older.
Cantrell, who recently helped launch the LifeSet program for teens and young adults in Clark County, pointed to research from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall that found youth who stayed in foster care beyond age 18 were twice as likely to finish a year of college. For each additional year, their average annual income rose by nearly $1,000.
Cantrell wants more Nevada young people to have such success.
“The potential for return on investment at a societal level is huge,” she said.