The numbers from California’s are encouraging for anyone who supports the notion of partnering with the federal government to offer foster care up to the age of 21. As an early and sizable adopter of extended care, it sets up the Sunshine State to be a bellwether for other states to look at, since 32 have yet to gain approval for a federal IV-E expansion.
Since the 2012 roll out of a federally-backed expansion of care:
- The number of youth staying in care past 18 has jumped to 5,941, which is 3,493 more than the total for 2011
- The number of youth aging out of foster care has been cut nearly in half, from 4,527 to 2,395
Without further analysis, that is a success. Thousands of 18-year-olds took the state up on continuing foster care, which tells you something about the need for that option.
Research has long displayed the negative outcomes experienced by youths who age out of foster care at 18. The “exits to emancipation” figure will certainly jump back up as 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds leave care, but it will now include many more youths with extra years to prepare. If the expansion has permanently lowered the number of youth who age out at 18, then that is a win.
But this isn’t sports, so not all wins are of equal value. There are lots of indicators that the counties and states should be monitoring to determine the broader impact of older foster youth. Among them:
Changes in the percentage of college degree-holding former foster youth; same for those reporting full-time employment
Changes in the rate of former foster youth reporting homelessness or unstable housing situations
Long-term reliance on public assistance (though this could only be fairly measured years down the road).
Looking inward, an eye should be kept on whether expanding foster care has had any unanticipated impacts. For example: the number of 16- and 17-year-olds entering foster care dropped from 3,861 to 3,461 in the first year of expanded care.
If that number continues to descend, it might be the case that systems are more wary to bring a teen into care for up to five years than they were for one or two years.