Every year, around 20,000 young adults in the United States are abruptly plunged into self-reliance as they come of age while in foster care. The consequences of leaving the foster care system without finding a permanent family are profound. Recent research points to the complex challenges faced by these individuals, especially with regard to their meeting basic needs like food and housing.
Yet emerging evidence reveals that even when help with those things is available, there is alarmingly low utilization of federally funded services intended to support the well-being of transition-age youth.
In May, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released Fostering Youth Transitions 2023, a data brief that underscores the status of older youth and young adults in foster care between the ages of 14 and 21. The comprehensive study encompassed all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, exposing a mix of favorable and precarious conditions.
The good news: teenagers and young adults comprise a smaller percentage of the foster care population than they did 15 years ago: down 10 percentage points between 2006 and 2021. But among the 444,348 youth and young adults who were eligible for transition services, a staggering 77 percent failed to take advantage of transitional services offered through their state agencies.
Under federal law, states may elect to assist this historically underserved population in successfully transitioning into adulthood. Encouragingly, the report reveals that most states offer older youth and young adults the option to remain in foster care until age 21 (and 23 in certain states). However, despite various benefits and pro-social outcomes associated with extended foster care, the disheartening reality is that only 22 percent of individuals choose to remain in care after their 18th birthday.
The Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transitions to Adulthood is another invaluable yet often underutilized resource and safety net. The Chafee Program provides states with flexible funding to provide a variety of resources and services. These include assistance in completing high school diplomas or GED programs, support in securing basic needs via housing vouchers, and essential life skills training that includes workshops on financial literacy and nutrition, to name a few.
Despite these benefits, we witness low participation rates in transitional services among young people in states like Illinois and Florida, which harbor some of the largest foster care populations. For example, while college costs are among the most significant barriers to college enrollment, young people in these states were less likely to seek financial assistance (19% and 23%, respectively).
Bridging the gap in preparation among youth and young adults transitioning from adolescence to adulthood requires swift, equity-minded and community-driven action. State policymakers, child welfare leaders and other advocates should begin by diving deeper into the data — to not only take stock of local trends but also unravel to the answer to a critical question: Why do young people aging out of foster care underutilize resources designed to aid them in becoming healthy and productive adults?
Here are a few suggestions for states and systems trying to think through a better connection between transition age youth and the services available to them.
If you haven’t already, establish a youth council. To effectively address the challenges that hinder participation in transitional services, state policymakers should demonstrate a genuine commitment to understanding the underlying roadblocks. One way to achieve this is by establishing a youth council that prioritizes the voices and perspectives of those most impacted by the issue. These youth-led boards can serve as vital feedback channels, enabling policymakers, education administrators and advocates within child welfare agencies to gain valuable insights.
Conduct focus groups to identify motivational factors. Child welfare agencies have a crucial role in addressing this pressing issue. To gain a deeper understanding of local trends and eliminate participation barriers to transitional services, agencies can employ a valuable strategy: conducting in-depth interviews or focus groups that provide a platform for current and former participants to share their experiences and shed light on vital aspects of the services they received.
Drawing on the strengths of community-engaged research means recruiting young adults with foster care histories as paid interview facilitators. These interviews should explore how participants learned about and were motivated to use transition services, and also delve into ways to strengthen critical program elements such as service delivery, outreach and evaluation.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a critical juncture that marks a significant personal milestone for every young person, regardless of their family background. While one cannot choose their birth family, those fortunate enough to come of age within stable, psychologically nurturing and resource-abundant households — such as college-educated, middle- and upper-class families — often enjoy numerous unacknowledged advantages inaccessible to those aging out of foster care.
That is why it is of utmost importance for youth and young adults aging out of foster care to fully utilize the resources and services provided by their state agency. As federal law mandates, state agencies must ensure these resources are well-publicized and accessible. Establishing youth councils and conducting focus groups can provide valuable insights into the barriers and motivational factors affecting participation.
By actively engaging with the voices and experiences of those involved, policymakers, child welfare leaders and advocates can work towards bridging the gap and empowering these young individuals for successful transitions into adulthood.