Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Erin Houchin (R-Ind.) have introduced a bill they hope will incentivize more states to expand foster care from age 18 to 21. Or more precisely, expand foster care with federal support.
“Our goal is to provide vital support and services to young adults navigating the challenges of aging out of foster care,” said Rep. Houchin, who was a child welfare worker before getting into politics, in a statement announcing the bill.
Youth Services Insider’s read of the bill, which is called the Increasing Access to Foster Care Through Age 21 Act, is that it is more likely to increase the number of youth availing themselves of extended care in states that already offer it. And that might actually be the bigger problem out there anyway.
We’ll break down what’s in the bill, and start with a little historical context.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act into effect. It offered states, among other things, federal matching money to expand foster care from age 18 to 21.
It was slow going in terms of getting states to opt in the early years. Now, 16 years later, 28 states, nine tribes and Washington, D.C., have all established a federally approved extension of foster care. But the overall reach of extended foster care is much greater: every state outside of Oklahoma has some support available for foster youth through 21, some more robust than others. There is solid evidence, much of it emanating from a major study in California, to support that the longer runway into adulthood has improved outcomes for youth who age out of foster care.
Enter Chu and Houchin’s bill, which was introduced in mid-January just before the House Ways and Means Committee held a broader hearing on support for older youth in foster care. Chu’s announcement of the bill says it provides “an incentive for all states to extend child welfare support and services for foster youth through age 21.”
Here are the main ways that it would alter the current federal offer for extended foster care:
All youth eligible for federal funds: Most federal funds for foster care come from Title IV-E, an entitlement program that provides at minimum 50% match. But that money only flows to youth who are IV-E eligible, and the primary test of that is currently an archaic income test applied to their birth parents.
Long story short: if the parents are under a 1996 poverty threshold, IV-E can flow. So in the case of teens turning 18, their eligibility was tied to the finances of parents they might not have lived with for a long time. That created a situation where states would be on the hook for part of the cost of extended foster care for some teens, and the full cost of it for others.
Under this bill, that income test goes away, which is what the authors describe as the incentive for state child welfare agencies: if those agencies were worried about paying full freight for a lot of extended care participants, this puts that concern to bed.
Categorical eligibility: The aforementioned income test is a limiting factor for states in claiming funds. But there are also some caveats around participation for foster youth. In order to remain in foster care past 18, per the Fostering Connections Act, a youth must be enrolled in school, college or a job training program; be working at least 80 hours per month; or be incapable of those things due to a medical condition.
Chu and Houchin’s bill would drop those rules, meaning any youth turning 18 while in foster care would be eligible to continue on until age 21.
Right to return: As one might imagine, there are plenty of foster youth who cannot conceive of wanting to stay one day longer in the system as they approach 18. So they leave despite the offer of extended care, and some of them might end up in a spot where they could use the protection of foster care again, especially help with housing. This bill would require that any state with a federal extended foster care plan allow a young person to return to the system if they chose to leave.
Through 21: Right now, Fostering Connections permits extended foster care up until the youth’s 21st birthday. This bill would have foster care run through the 21st year and end when someone turns 22.
If you want some context on the barriers that Chu and Houchin seek to eliminate with the Increasing Access to Foster Care Through Age 21 Act, read The Imprint’s 2020 series “Fostering Adults: The State of Care.” This deep dive into how extended foster care has played out in California provides clear examples of how the strings attached to this system have impacted the lives of foster youth.
Having helped work on that series, it is quite clear to Youth Services Insider how this bill would help California and other states already doing the IV-E federal foster care plan to serve more youth with increased federal dollars. It would greatly ease the process of getting young people into extended care: no administrative time determining federal eligibility, no judges having to seek periodic confirmation that a youth was in college or working.
But the bill will only be effective in drawing more states into a federal extended foster care plan if the barrier to doing so is the issue with the income test for eligibility. Every other aspect of it makes the proposition of extended foster care more costly, not less.