California lawmakers will soon weigh legislation that would extend the nation’s largest foster care system by five years for some youth, making it the first state in the nation to offer housing, financial and caseworker support to young adults through age 26.
It’s the second time such legislation has been introduced in California in the past three years, but this time it has new backing from influential players in the child welfare system: a group of Superior Court judges.
Introduced in December by state Sen. Dave Cortese (D), Senate Bill 9 aims to prevent rampant homelessness among foster youth aging out of the system at age 21. The bill is at an early stage of the two-year legislative cycle and as yet, has no projected costs.
But notably for child welfare-related legislation, the bill is backed by the California Judges Association, a nonprofit advocacy group representing the interests of the judiciary in the state. And the bill will be heard by a Legislature that has long been amenable to improving the state’s foster care system that serves roughly 53,000 children and youth. There is also growing attention to how poorly young people leaving the state’s care fare once they are 21 years old, the age of independence.
“It’s tougher than ever for someone at 21 years old to survive on their own, not to mention a young person on day one” leaving foster care, Sen. Cortese said in an interview with The Imprint. “Right now, we’re essentially emancipating young people into homelessness.”
The 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, for the first time, allowed states to extend foster care through age 21 with federal funds. In 2012, California was one of the first states to launch the support, and it has since created one of the most robust extended foster care programs in the country, currently serving roughly 7,200 18- to 21-year-olds.
A long-term study by University of Chicago researchers points to some success resulting from those efforts. Each additional year that young adults spent in California’s extended foster care system increased by 10% the likelihood they would attend college, and it boosted their bank accounts by roughly $400 annually. Extended foster care also decreased the odds that they would be arrested by about 40%. They were 28% less likely than their peers who did not receive the support to experience homelessness between the ages of 17 and 21, researchers found.
“We have to really be more intentional about how we’re going to serve young people so that they don’t end up homeless.”—Dontae Lartigue, CEO of razing the bar and former foster youth
But many child welfare experts say it’s still not enough. Many 21-year-olds simply are not ready for self-sufficiency, but for foster youth, common rites of passage on the way to independence are complicated by the effects of traumatic childhoods, poverty and a lack of social and familial support.
Despite efforts to prepare young people for life on their own after they’ve been cut off from their families, many former foster youth struggle with poverty and homelessness after exiting government custody at age 21. A survey of 23-year-olds who had been in California’s extended foster care system found that more than a quarter were sleeping in shelters, couch-surfing or were temporarily unhoused. In 2019, roughly 30% of all homeless youth in Los Angeles County had experienced foster care.
The current version of SB 9 would not apply to all 21-year-olds aging out, instead allowing dependency court judges to allow some young adults to stay in foster care under certain circumstances — including whether they are at risk of homelessness.
The bill is in the early stages of the legislative process and will be heard in March or April by the Senate Human Services Committee.
Retired Santa Clara County Juvenile Court Judge Leonard Edwards noted the historic significance of the bill, which seeks to update the landmark 2008 legislation that extended foster care beyond age 18.
If passed, the bill would be “the first sequel to the Fostering Connections Act,” he said.
Dontae Lartigue, CEO of a San Jose-based nonprofit serving foster youth, Razing the Bar, said he would welcome the opportunity for young adults to receive greater resources and support if the state chooses to raise the age of foster care to 26.
But he also expressed doubts about whether the current foster care system has the expertise to meet the needs of adults in this age group. Between ages 21 to 26, for example, many will be parenting and less likely to be amenable to restrictive requirements of extended foster care, such as regular court appearances and checking in with a social worker.
Lartigue, 32, grew up in Santa Clara County’s foster care system, and his organization now helps young adults 18 to 24 by connecting them to resources, offering housing and providing mentors.
In addition to the struggles they face with traumatic pasts, connecting former foster youth to subsidized housing is an ongoing challenge in the astronomically expensive Santa Clara County. Often, former foster youth have difficulty finding help in safety net systems when they must compete with other vulnerable groups for scarce beds, he said.
“We have to really be more intentional about how we’re going to serve young people so that they don’t end up homeless,” he said.
Extended foster care participation requires some effort by participants. Under federal law, in order to receive support, 18- to 21-year-olds in foster care must either be working, going to school, pursuing designated job-training activities or prove they’re unable to participate in those activities because of a medical condition. If a young person is out of work or drops out of school, their eligibility can be challenged in court and they must check in regularly with social workers and judges.
They face other limitations their peers who are not in foster care do not have to deal with, such as housing restrictions about who is allowed to visit their homes and when.
Judge Edwards said dependency court judges supporting SB 9 are well-positioned to know what young adults in foster care need to be successful, given that they have gotten to know them through frequent court appearances over their lifetimes. He also noted that under the current bill language, foster care would be extended to age 26 for only a subset of youth with serious needs, such as homelessness.
“We know what to do with these kids to give them a pathway to success,” he said of dependency court judges, “so why let all that hard work that we did with those kids just go by the wayside — why not give them an additional boost?”
This is not the first time that a California legislator has sought to extend foster care through age 25. Just weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 emergency stay-at-home order shut down stores and offices throughout the state in March 2020, then-Sen. Jim Beall (D) introduced a bill similar to SB 9. With the state budget hampered by the response to the pandemic, Beall’s bill was substantially amended and eventually vetoed, though California did temporarily allow thousands of young adults to remain in foster care after age 21 through the end of 2021.
In recent years, California has also experimented with other approaches to helping young people exiting the foster care system at age 21. In 2020, Cortese, then a Santa Clara County supervisor, helped create a novel guaranteed income program that provides a monthly $1,000 check and financial literacy classes to former foster youth in his Silicon Valley community.
Other parts of the state have since replicated the effort. Alameda County and the city of South Francisco have rolled out similar programs, and the state of California is also funding four guaranteed income projects aimed at serving former foster youth in other parts of the state.
“why let all that hard work that we did with those kids just go by the wayside — why not give them an additional boost?”— Retired juvenile couRt judge Leonard Edwards
While SB 9 would be groundbreaking if passed, even its backers acknowledge that it faces a steep path to success. Last month, Gov. Newsom (D) released a modest budget in light of lower-than-expected revenues. Analysts now predict a $24 billion shortfall this year, making any new legislation with dollar signs attached a heavier lift for lawmakers.
Bills that cost money were also a tough sell last year under this governor. At the end of last year’s legislative cycle, Newsom vetoed hundreds of bills, citing the need for more “disciplined” spending. It is so far unclear whether counties would bear the cost of this legislation or if there would be some new state funding available.
Meanwhile, the costs of providing housing and other services to older foster youth has created ongoing strain for some counties, which are struggling to support their current enrollees in extended foster care. Last year, California bailed out Los Angeles County’s child welfare system with $300 million over two years to make up a “structural deficit” caused in part by larger-than-expected costs of extended foster care for its roughly 2,500 enrolled youth.
Backers of SB 9 have tried to assuage fiscal concerns by suggesting that the effort to raise the age of foster care would be optional for counties, and cheaper than more costly systems that young people enter when they don’t have proper support, such as jails and emergency rooms.
Sen. Cortese underscored that notion.
“If you end up incarcerated, unhoused or requiring assistance, that is just as expensive or more expensive than the relatively modest support that you’d have to provide to keep them in extended foster care,” he said.
Cortese noted financial pressures the state is facing for all new legislation but added that while this may come at some costs, “more importantly, this is the right thing to do. Kids in foster care can only look to us, to the government, for the kind of support that most kids just get from their families.”