The good news: as of 2021, the most recent year for most federal data, there were far less older youth in foster care compared to 15 years ago. They also make up a much lower percentage of the youth who are in foster care overall.
But state and local systems still struggle to connect this group with permanency or the independent living services they are entitled to, as is made clear in Fostering Youth Transitions 2023, the most recent installment of an ongoing analysis of the data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“It’s clear from the data that states can do more to ensure that young people in foster care have permanent families and receive the services they need to thrive as they transition into adulthood,” said Leslie Gross, director of the foundation’s Family Well-Being Strategy Group, in a press release. “To achieve better outcomes, all decision makers who are designing solutions must authentically partner with young people who have foster care experience.”
There were 271,000 foster youth between the ages of 14 and 21 in 2006, or about 53% of the youth in the system at the time. By 2021, the total was down to 147,143 — 38% of the 391,000 youth in foster care. Making this drop more remarkable, during this time span, most states moved to expand foster care from age 18 to 21, lengthening the runway to adulthood and, in theory, increasing the pool of youth and young adults who could be in foster care.
The nature of these youths’ entry into foster care also changed, according to the report, which used data from the annual Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and from the National Youth in Transition Database. The share of older youth entries tied to neglect soared from 29% to 48% over this decade-and-a-half period; cases where child behavior was noted as the chief issue dropped from 49% to 30%.
The report does not include case outcome information going back as far as 2006. But a five-year comparison found that less teenagers and young adults were leaving to permanency, which generally refers to three outcomes: reunification, guardianship and adoption. The fourth outcome has been “aging out” into adulthood, a path experienced by about 20,000 transition-age youth every year.
Forty-four percent of 14- to 21-year-olds exited foster care into permanency in 2021, down from 48% in 2016. The percentage who aged out into adulthood increased from 46% to 52%.
And transition age youth are only slightly more likely to be connected with services specifically designed to support them, such as mentoring, life skills and college assistance. The federal government helps states pay for many of these services through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood.
Despite heightened attention to the needs of older youth, the percentage of eligible recipients actually getting these services only increased from 21% to 23% between 2016 and 2021. Just under half of eligible youth receive transition services at any point during which they are eligible.
Annie E. Casey has worked with current and former foster youth to develop a novel approach to permanency called the SOUL Family, in which transition-age youth work to legally establish a group of adults who play different roles in their life as they move into adulthood. To hear more about that model, check out The Imprint Weekly Podcast’s interview with Gross and Casey Program Associate Patty Duh, who helped develop the idea when she was a Jim Casey Young Fellow.
Kansas is committed to becoming the first state to pass the SOUL Family Legal Permanency Option, a new permanency pathway designed by and for young people, with legislation expected to be introduced in next year’s state legislative session. Gross told Youth Services Insider that the foundation is also in early discussions with a second jurisdiction now, and recently generated some interest in the model at the annual Child Welfare League of America conference.
Click here to read the data brief, and click here to access state-by-state profiles on entries and outcomes for transition-age foster youth.