Few personal milestones are as ripe with anticipation as the day you turn 18. That’s when you reach adulthood in the eyes of the law, gaining all the rights and freedoms that come with it.
But for a child aging out of foster care, that 18th birthday can mean something quite different: the abrupt end of their safety net. An estimated 20% of young adults in foster care become homeless the moment they are emancipated.
Picture a teenager on the eve of their big birthday, bags packed. They have no concrete or long-term plan — just to crash on a friend’s couch. They may not have a government ID or know how to apply for a job. But they’re determined to be done with the child welfare system. And come the stroke of midnight, no one can legally stop them.
The future consequences can be nothing short of devastating. Numerous studies have shown that the academic achievement of youth who have been in foster care is much lower than that of their peers. They also have abysmally high rates of unemployment, homelessness and incarceration.
How’s that for a birthday present?
We can’t expect youth who age out of foster care to succeed without proper support. That’s why the Texas child welfare system must do more to help them transition into adulthood. With extra time and resources, they can figure out what’s next—and build the futures they dream of and deserve.
Extended foster care exists to fill this gap between being a minor in foster care and trying to navigate the tricky waters of adulthood with little to no guidance. Young adults ages 18 to 21 can choose to remain with their foster family, move into a Transitional Living Program or enroll in a supervised independent living program. Their core living expenses can largely be covered as they work toward their education, career goals or both.
However, Texas has far fewer young adults in extended foster care than states with comparative systems. Many youth wish to shed the rules, regulations and red tape — not to mention the unfortunate stigma — of foster care. And, as 18-year-olds’ brains are still maturing, they may not be prepared to think strategically about their futures. The lure of independence is simply too strong, even if they don’t know how they’ll swing it.
We have a narrow window of time to make a difference for youth aging out of care. Our challenge, then, is to strengthen extended foster care programs, expand access and entice teenagers to enroll. This involves:
Doubling down on permanency and transition planning. We must be diligent in educating teenagers about their options at the point of aging out, including but not limited to extended state care. These conversations are required beginning at 16, but we know from our conversations with youth that many never receive this guidance. Youth need to understand their options and available community resources for post-secondary education, vocational training and employment before they can decide what’s right for them when they reach legal age.
Underscoring the value. When young adults have so many reasons to leave foster care behind, we must think creatively to educate and encourage them to evaluate the long-term benefits of remaining in care.
Expanding program capacity. Texas has more extended foster care providers than ever, but still not enough to serve everyone who needs it. Limited resources can hinder youth’s actual ability to choose their next steps. We must identify more community partners willing to house, train and mentor youth who have aged out of care. Then, we must lower barriers to enrollment by designing programs in the locations and with living arrangements that are attractive to older teens.
Taking a child-centered approach. What do you want to study or do for a living? Where do you want to live, and with whom? We must ask youth what they want for their future — and be prepared to provide personalized services.
Catching up on basic life skills. Extended foster care programs should prioritize basic life skills such as money management, meal planning and using public transportation. While providers are required to train children aged 14 and up in experiential life skills, youth who age out of foster care often remain behind the curve, which makes their road to independence all the more challenging.
Nurturing meaningful adult relationships. No matter what, youth must exit state care with at least one caring, committed adult they can count on, whether it’s a grandparent, former foster parent, educator or volunteer mentor. As we know from research such as the Texas Youth Permanency Study, this circle of support is critical for navigating the transition to adulthood and for long-term child wellbeing.
Independence should be something to look forward to, regardless of a child’s personal history. With the right investments and innovation, extended foster care can live up to its full potential — providing the skills, tools and trusted relationships youth need to thrive on their own. It’s the best gift we could ever give them.