An Imprint investigation finds scores of open beds while aged-out youth are left on the streets
In August, an 18-year-old begged her caseworker with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to pick her up from Houston’s downtown bus station and take her somewhere safe.
But the Harris County child welfare worker said she couldn’t help. So the foster youth went home with the bus driver, who offered her one night off the street.
Next, the child welfare agency referred the teen to a domestic violence shelter, where she spent two weeks. And as Christmas approached, the teenager’s attorney, Tara Grigg Green, received another update. With freezing temperatures expected in Houston, her client and her boyfriend were sleeping in a graveyard. On some nights the teenage girl had been sexually exploited in exchange for stays in a hotel.
“We would hear from her sporadically for a few weeks, calling from a different number every time,” said Grigg Green, executive director of the Foster Care Advocacy Center. “But we didn’t have meaningful and reliable contact with her until she was in the graveyard and needed a place to stay.”
In Texas and nationwide, state and federal laws are supposed to protect foster youth until they turn 21, a hedge against rampant homelessness, hunger, sexual exploitation and incarceration. The push to extend foster care beyond age 18 is designed to support teenagers “aging out” of the system who have no adults or family to rely on, providing them with financial assistance, housing and casework support.
But an investigation by The Imprint found that Texas all too often throws up unnecessarily burdensome hurdles, and then fails to provide the federal entitlements for housing and basic needs that these older foster youth are owed.
Texas is home to one of the nation’s largest child welfare systems, with roughly 28,000 children in 2021. But it has far fewer young adults in foster care than states with comparably sized child welfare systems, including Illinois, Florida, Ohio and New York.
Even states with smaller foster care populations enroll many more young adults in extended care. State data show that Minnesota, for example, has less than a quarter the number of children in foster care than Texas, but nearly twice as many young people in its extended foster care program.
University of Chicago researcher Mark Courtney, who has spent the bulk of his career studying the well-being of older foster youth, reacted to The Imprint’s findings by saying that extended foster care (EFC) in Texas appeared to be “very uninviting.”
“It appears the state is either offering very little that youth see as useful to them [or] making it very difficult to stay in EFC,” he said.
What’s more, although young adults in Texas foster care are routinely told there is no availability for state-licensed independent housing, 88 units in a popular program known as Supervised Independent Living (SIL) sat empty in late January, according to a state spokesperson. Just 303 of the 391 total beds for the program were filled.
Supervised Independent Living is a preferred option among older foster youth because it allows them some measure of independence, with minimal caseworker oversight but no daily supervision. The alternatives for youth in extended care are living in restrictive group homes, college dorms, or with foster families, which — after growing up in the system — many youth say does not suit their needs as young adults.
“As judges, we’re upset to know that we have 18-year olds aging out into the street when we have available spots for housing.”— Judge Aurora Martinez Jones
The significant number of empty beds stunned Family Court judges and youth advocates, who say they have long been informed by state officials that young adults are sitting on waiting lists for the independent housing.
Cortney Jones, a former foster youth and a social worker who founded the Austin-based nonprofit serving children and families Change 1 pointed to the state’s obligation to care for these youth, removed from their parents’ homes following abuse and neglect allegations. Every child in America “deserves a chance and especially when the guardian is the Department of Family and Protective Services,” Jones said. “Parenting does not stop at 18. Parenting does not stop at 21. Everyone that is a parent in America knows that they support their children way beyond those ages.”
Marissa Gonzales, a spokesperson with the Department of Family and Protective Services, said there is an adequate supply of Supervised Independent Living placements that matches the level of need, with 46 providers and 391 housing units throughout the state.
Following months of inquiries by a reporter, Gonzales said in early February that the agency has added dozens of units since November, when there were 91 available beds, and described availability as involving “some ebb and flow.”
“We’ve put a special emphasis on decreasing the wait-time for approvals of applications in recent months,” she added.
But Gonzales said that applications are carefully scrutinized before youth are offered housing placements and that the independent living model is not appropriate for everyone who applies.
“Some youth have more intense supervision needs than SIL allows and may receive other types of ongoing support more appropriate than SIL,” she said. “Staff view applications from a trauma-informed perspective, taking into account only the most up-to-date information about each youth.”
‘This was preventable’
Numerous studies show that youth who age out of foster care experience higher rates of homelessness, lower educational attainment, and more involvement with the criminal justice system than their peers.
The 2008 Fostering Connections Act aimed to change that trajectory through federal funding to support foster youth ages 18 to 21. There are requirements, however. Participants who cannot show a medical exemption must be in school, working or training for work. They must also make regular court appearances so that judges can confirm their participation. In exchange, states provide housing as well as supportive services to help former foster youth navigate adult living.
A 2021 study by University of Chicago researchers found that young people who remained in Extended Foster Care in California through age 21 had more stable lives compared with their peers who left government custody at age 18. Two years later, they had $650 more on average in their bank accounts, and were 19% less likely to have been homeless between the ages of 21 and 23. They also had greater odds of completing a high school credential and attending college.
But the type of housing available to young people in extended foster care — and how states control access — varies widely by state, affecting both the number of available placements and the number of young adults receiving support.
Twenty days before Grigg Green’s client turned 18 in March, she received an application for Supervised Independent Living via email. The teen — who is not being named to protect her identity as a victim of sexual exploitation — signed a contract agreeing to the requirements of extended foster care. But like many youth overwhelmed by the process, she never completed the SIL application.
As a result, the only housing she was offered was a bed in a residential treatment center, which was staffed 24 hours a day and run on a strict set of rules. Because the Houston teen rejected that placement, she was dropped from extended foster care, which would have amounted to three years of steady support, her lawyer said.
At that point, she moved to Austin, and lived temporarily with her boyfriend’s family. When the family put her out in late August, she took the bus back to Houston, and called her caseworker.
Grigg Green reacted with outrage when told by a reporter that at the time her client was on the streets late last year, there were 91 empty Supervised Independent Living beds.
“You have got to be kidding me. There was a solution to this? This was preventable?” she said. “You knowingly left a child at a bus stop to let them be trafficked because you said there are no placements? But there were actually 91?”
Grigg Green said her clients are regularly told there are no available Supervised Independent Living placements. Over the past three years, five have entered extended foster care, while 20 ended up at adult homeless shelters. Five current clients preferred a SIL placement, but are currently living in residential treatment centers, Grigg Green said.
“Knowingly sending” aged-out youth into homelessness
A 2022 report by the federal Housing and Urban Development found 1,226 unaccompanied homeless youth in Texas, the fourth-highest total in the country. And while there is no direct connection between that tally and a failure to house 18- to 21-year-olds who are eligible for extended foster care, studies indicate that those young adults swell the ranks of the homeless.
Texas youth advocates point to a variety of problems contributing to the under-enrollment in extended foster care: a shortage of developmentally-appropriate housing options, unnecessarily strict policies, and an unwillingness to honor the intent of the federal Fostering Connections Act of 2008, which created the program for young adults.
Professionals working in the Texas foster care system say that for years they’ve been led to believe there were waiting lists for a limited supply of Supervised Independent Living units. They described young people sleeping on couches, staying in shelters, or living on the streets while they waited, often giving up hope of securing placements that were never offered.
But in October, officials with the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) told a group of Family Court judges that foster youth turning 18 were not being put on waiting lists, despite what judges had long understood. Instead, department officials said teenagers were denied spots outright or had their applications marked as “pending” for indefinite periods.
In short, there was no waiting list.
“We used to have a waitlist,” Travis County District Court Judge Aurora Martinez Jones said in a written response to The Imprint. “As judges, we’re upset to know that we have 18-year-olds aging out into the street, when we have available spots for housing and DFPS is CHOOSING not to house the very same kids they did not prepare for adulthood. DFPS is knowingly sending aged-out foster youth into homelessness.”
Martinez Jones, who confirmed she was among the judges who received the acknowledgement from state officials, said they were told the reasons for denials might include problematic behaviors, or what agency staff conclude is insufficient mastery of skills necessary to live in a placement with minimal oversight.
But the judges were not told what information was used to decide who is housed and who is denied, Martinez Jones said.
Department spokesperson Gonzales described denials for an SIL as rare, and said there have been only seven in the last year. She said some applications have been categorized as “pending” due to missing information or incomplete paperwork, but that “staff have been working to get them processed.”
For more than 35 years, Texas has also provided its older foster youth with the Preparation for Adult Living program (PAL), which offers training in finances, housing, transportation, job readiness, life skills and decision-making.
Martinez Jones acknowledged that there are some teenagers who would not be well-served in independent living placements. But she argued that it is the state’s obligation to prepare children raised in government custody for adulthood, and if it fails to launch them into independence through programs like PAL, teens should not be made to pay for that failure.
“It seems illogical that if a child does not already have some independent living skills in place, that they should age out to homelessness,” Martinez Jones said, “rather than have the opportunity, or an option, where they can gain those independent living skills with support.”
Texas lags far behind other states
States with similarly sized foster care populations as Texas show far higher enrollment in extended care when the children turn 18. In 2021, there were roughly 670 young people ages 18 to 21 in Texas extended foster care. That same year, Florida enrolled 1,500 and Illinois enrolled nearly 1,300 youth in that age group.
In addition, only about 27% of eligible young adults in Texas end up in extended foster care, state data show, with the number of enrolled youth between 18 and 21 remaining relatively steady over the past decade. By contrast, in California — another large state with a sprawling child welfare system — 85% of eligible 18- to 21-year-old foster youth are served.
According to the state’s Department of Social Services, each year, California has managed to increase the numbers of older youth into extended care — even while grappling with much higher housing costs. Between 2012 and 2022, the number of enrollees has more than doubled — from nearly 3,600 to about 7,300.
Child welfare experts say one key to increasing participation is missing in Texas: making it as seamless as possible to transition from the foster care system that serves children into the system serving young adults. Although extended foster care has federally mandated participation requirements, child welfare experts say the intent of the law is to offer guidance and support, allowing young adults to learn from mistakes without automatically being disqualified.
Ivymarie Washington, a former foster youth and now child welfare advocate, said she spent a brief time in Texas’ extended foster care system while in college. But she soon realized that the support came with too many strings attached. In order to qualify as a full-time student, she also had to work as well as keep up onerous paperwork requirements and continue with therapy.
For her, it was easier in the end to drop out of the program and find her own way.
Washington, now 27, said a lack of trust in the state’s child welfare system and restrictive rules — like curfews and restrictions on who young people can bring into their state-licensed housing — drive many young adults out of extended foster care.
“Texas wants these young people to do absolutely everything they say from the moment they open their eyes to when they close their eyes at night,” she said. “No adult — especially someone who has just spent the last 10 years being told what to do — wants to do that.”
Child welfare experts say one key to increasing participation is missing in Texas: making it as seamless as possible to transition into the system serving young adults.
What’s more, in states like California, young people are automatically entered into extended foster care when they turn 18, but can choose to opt-out — as opposed to Texas, where youth have to actively seek entry.
Simone Turek Lee, director of housing and health for the California-based John Burton Advocates for Youth, said automatic enrollment, combined with flexible housing programs and support services, has led to significant increases in the number of her state’s participants.
In states such as California and Ohio, many teenagers can choose their own housing — be it with a relative, friend or shared space — and as long as it meets basic licensing standards, they can have their rent and associated costs paid by the state. This flexibility avoids lengthy waiting periods for beds in state-run programs.
In Texas, by contrast, youth are only allowed to live in housing licensed by the state — foster homes, group homes, college dorms, or Supervised Independent Living.
The Department of Family and Protective Services “works collaboratively with the young adult to secure housing prior to their 18th birthday,” spokesperson Gonzales said. The agency also hosts university tours and youth summits “designed to listen to young people and help them make informed decisions about choosing Extended Foster Care or other forms of aid.”
She noted that those who do not opt for extended foster care still get help from staff “to make sure they get all the transitional living support and benefits for which they’re eligible,” including other public welfare benefits and low-income rental assistance.
But they no longer have access to child welfare attorneys, caseworkers and court-appointed special advocates.
Ruth White, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, said the Texas approach is short-sighted and runs contrary to the federal program’s goals of ensuring that teens aging out of the system are well-supported: “They said: ‘Do what’s developmentally appropriate.’ They didn’t say: ‘Do whatever you feel you’re comfortable with.’”
White emphasized that federal funds follow the youth, so states can draw additional federal funds to cover more or different types of housing as needed. They can also make adjustments to their programs to meet the needs of the young people they are serving.
State officials “have federal flexibility to do more than they’re doing,” agreed Anna Johnson, the associate director of housing and health for John Burton Advocates for Youth. Instead, some are “choosing to be paternalistic, and choosing to have these policies that they have known for a long time are not effective.”
In Texas, less flexibility and a ‘rude’ attitude
Some young people do get extended help in Texas, but describe it as a battle. Kristopher Carter said he felt unable to manage his own life in extended care, and was pushed into studying for a career in heating and air-conditioning repair that didn’t interest him. He felt stifled and controlled rather than supported and encouraged, he said.
Carter was shuffled through multiple foster care placements as a young teen, and given psychotropic medications to manage his behavior instead of therapy to deal with childhood trauma resulting from abuse. He’d been miserable in the system, yet he still believed extended foster care was the safest path into adulthood.
“I knew I didn’t have anywhere to go and I wouldn’t have anyone to support me,” he said. “I needed it because I just wouldn’t survive without it.”
But the state’s rules seemed inflexible — once enrolled, Carter felt he couldn’t change careers or live in another city without losing the state’s support.
As his 21st birthday approached in October, his advisor with the Preparation for Adult Living program helped him secure housing vouchers to ensure he had a place to live when he aged out of extended care.
Yet when he asked his caseworker or the advisor for help searching for an apartment or formulating questions to ask potential landlords, he said he was often dismissed.
“I didn’t want to go into something just blindly,” said Carter. “They would just really get a rude tone and pretty much continue what they were saying before, without adding any new detail.”
Finally, with the help of the City of Austin’s Housing Authority, he got an apartment a few months before he turned 21. He also found a therapist — on his own — who’s helping him work through his childhood trauma.
Other Texas youth never even entered extended care — but now wish caseworkers had encouraged them more and made the system easier to navigate.
When Jonathan Alexander was nearing his 18th birthday, the last thing he wanted was to continue life as a foster youth. Removed from his mother’s care when he was 2, shuffled through several kinship placements and more than 10 foster homes, group homes and shelters over the next 15 years, he was just done, he said.
“I’m like, ‘I have already been in foster care for 4,000 years. Who wants to stay two more years in foster care?’” said Alexander.
At 17 and still desperate for a connection to family, he left his foster care placement and tried living with his mother. But that was short-lived and he very quickly found himself on the streets, sometimes running with the wrong crowd.
“I had to learn the hard way,” he said.
If the state had made it easier to get trauma care and supportive housing — if it had helped him understand there were benefits to extended care — he says his opportunities in early adulthood would have vastly improved.
Now 29 and a father, Alexander is studying to earn his GED. He’s active as a Youth Action Board member at Collective Action For Youth in Houston, where he is sharing his story and helping guide young people to better futures.
If such support had arrived earlier for him, he said, “I wouldn’t have had to worry where I was going to sleep at night,” Alexander said. “I would have had the right tools to be able to take care of myself, to show me the right direction.”