Why Aren’t Older Foster Youth Extending Stay in Care?   

Foster Youth Transitions charts the performance of each state against national trends when it comes to serving older youth in foster care. Photo by Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, once a standalone entity and now part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has released a compendium of data on foster youth ages 14 to 21, a group that makes up about 25 percent of the overall foster youth population.

Fostering Youth Transitions” is the first resource that really makes it simple for advocates and policymakers to zero in on outcomes for this subset of the foster care population, and then compare state-level performance to a national trendline. That is an invaluable tool if you’re interested in making the case for greater investments in older youth.

Included in the report are data from the following federal sources:

  • Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS)
  • National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD)
  • American Community Survey

Youth Services Insider sifted through the report to see what jumps out from 218 pages of mostly bad news.

Living, and Leaving, Without Permanency

Among all youth in foster care, the share that exits the system without permanency – reunification, adoption, kinship arrangement – is pretty small. But this report finds that among older teens, it is the most likely outcome of foster care: 51 percent of this group emancipates from care.

The share is much, much higher in some states, including the most populous. In Maryland, 73 percent of older youth age out. It’s 65 percent in California, 63 percent in Texas and 60 percent in Florida. In all cases, those percentages are even worse for African-American youth.

Instability starts well before adulthood for many of these older foster youth. Nearly a third have had more than one episode of foster care, and 51 percent have experienced three or more placements during their time in the custody of the state.

That is all extremely not good. We are 10 years out from the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which provided federal support for subsidized kinship guardianship agreements. Part of the motivation for those was to support permanency in the homes of relatives who might be hesitant to adopt. Surely, one expected outcome from this would be more of the older youth finding a permanent place to call home.

One reason for hope on this would be the dramatic, foundation-bankrolled expansion of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a program that helps train and fund adoption workers who specialize in permanency for older youth. The Dave Thomas Foundation of America, which operates the program, has a goal of increasing foster care adoptions by 70 percent.

In the meantime, it should immediately become a priority of the Congressional caucuses on foster care to explore why so many older youth are exiting without any form of permanency. It is also worth mentioning that data in the most recent AFCARS report suggests that permanency is becoming more difficult in general for all foster youth.

Extended Foster Care: Thanks, But No Thanks

Another piece of the Fostering Connections legislation was an offer of federal funding to help extend foster care until the age of 21 for youth who wished to remain in care. The idea was to lengthen the runway a bit in recognition of the fact that most people, no matter how supported they are, aren’t ready for independence at age 18.

Since the law passed, 26 states have established federally funded expansions, and virtually every state has some form of extended care. According to the extended care policy database managed by Juvenile Law Center, only three states offer no form of extended care: Louisiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island. But based on the findings of this report, it appears that not many foster youth are taking states up on that offer. The report identifies 171,000 youth in foster care between the ages of 14 and 21. But of that total, only 22 percent are age 18 or older. Translation: So far, not many kids are choosing to stick around once they turn 18.

“That’s a big point of concern for us,” said Leslie Gross, director of Jim Casey, in an interview with YSI. “Since 2011, we have been on a big campaign” to get youth into extended care.

A weird wrinkle here: It isn’t clear how great the federal data on older youth is when it comes to extended care. Rules on data collection under AFCARS have not been updated for decades, so there’s no official instruction to states on counting the youth who remain past 18. In the topline AFCARS report released to the public each fall, the number of youth in care who are 18 and older has gone down.

Gross said there are a number of states capturing older youth in AFCARS, and she’s confident the data in the report captures most of the extended care population.

“We all know there are quality issues in all of this data,” she said.

On a basic level, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone if teens are wary of staying in foster care after 18. Foster care is hardly an optimal experience for many of the youth in it, especially the ones living in group homes – which are largely youth in this older demographic.

So given the choice between freedom and more foster care, should we really be shocked most just move on? If practitioners and policymakers really believe in extended care as a way to prevent some of the worst outcomes from aging out, the lesson here might be that a better sales pitch on staying in the fold is necessary.

But Gross said that in some states and counties, it’s the actual extended care plan that needs fine-tuning.

“Despite lots of states extending care, I think there are concerns about whether they are doing it in a way that’s developmentally appropriate,” said Gross.

Surprisingly Stable Housing, or Nah?

If someone asked Youth Services Insider to guess what percentage of emancipating youth reported a stable housing situation, we’d have guessed it was somewhere between 33 and 50 percent.

Actual retail price: Seventy percent nationally report stable housing in surveys with the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD). What the what?

Gross said uptake issues aside, extended care probably has helped with this metric in recent years. But it was among the most surprising findings, she said, and it does not jive with Jim Casey’s own research on the subject.

The initiative operates in 17 jurisdictions around the country, and periodically surveys thousands of youth who are aging out of foster care.

“We don’t see that same number in terms of stable housing,” Gross said.

The high rate of reported stable housing is even stranger when you factor in what NYTD surveys show about transitional services provided to youth aging out, primarily through the federal-state partnership known as the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. Here are the national trendlines on three key categories, each expressed as the percent of youth who report receiving them:

  1. Employment/vocational training: 23 percent.
  2. Educational financial assistance: 23 percent
  3. Financial assistance with room and board: 19 percent

So despite indicating that most older foster youth do not report getting the type of help we associate with securing a stable housing environment in adulthood, the NYTD surveys show that 70 percent of those youth are ending up with stable housing anyway. Gross thinks the inconsistency could be indicative of problematic data.

“This is an issue we see with information from NYTD,” Gross said. “The response rates are still a real problem. Does this tell the whole picture?

“But we have come to a point where … we’re going into the 25thanniversary of Chafee [it passed in 1999],” said Gross. Data problems aside, “it’s critical to know how and how much young people are experiencing these programs.”

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