How to best serve the needs of youth aging out of foster care? The law may believe they’re old enough for independent living, but in reality the barriers to doing so can feel insurmountable. It’s a challenging question for even the most seasoned child welfare professionals, but there are actions that government agencies and non-profit organizations can take that tangibly improve the lives of transition- age youth.
Below are a few examples of what social service agencies can do, from programs around the country.
Extend the age of eligibility for services in all states: More time means more access to the other factors discussed below including housing assistance, education opportunities, and job training. A 2010 University of Chicago study of transition-age youth in Illinois and Wisconsin found that “the number of years a youth remained in care from age 18 to 21 is positively associated with wages...youth remaining in care attain higher educational credentials and earn higher wages.”
Facilitate social capital and connections: How many of us had a family member, teacher, or mentor guide us through milestones like finding our first apartment, opening a bank account, looking for a job, even finding mental health care? Long-term support networks are critical for all of our development, but often harder to access for foster age youth. A 2017 report from Child Trends cites the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency as an example of an organization that breaks that pattern. Their programs include the Foster Alumni co-Mentoring Experience (FACE), which pairs youth in transition with alumni who have previously aged out, providing youth in foster not only with a mentor, but one who understands their unique situation and can help guide them through it.
Provide transitional and supportive housing, financial literacy, healthcare, and access to transportation: A 2014 report from the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) calls this category permanency support. It’s the foundation on which all of the other important factors are built. After all, you can’t apply for a job if you don’t have an address, and it’s harder to get paid if you don’t have a bank account. Covenant House, an organization with branches across North and Central America, developed their Continuum of Care services with that in mind, including an 18 month long semi-independent housing program that includes classes ranging from cooking to saving money.
Expand access to and funding for post-secondary education, job training, and obtaining employment: Many states offer some kind of post-secondary school and support, but only 17 provide state-funded scholarships for transition-age youth, and not all pair education with employment support and training, or professional mentorship. Exceptions include Friends of Foster Care which pairs internship participants with mentors, in Arizona, and Virginia’s Great Expectations program that starts in high school. Great Expectations helps youth gain access to community college education, supports them while they’re in school, and provides additional services that help ease the transition from foster care to independent living.
When designing and implementing these programs, it’s important to keep a few criteria in mind:
- Engage a wide variety of stakeholders in the process, especially youth who know firsthand what it’s like to age out.
- Invest long-term. Transitioning out of foster care is not a quick process, but one that with the right time, care, and funding, is invaluable for youth.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, provide more resources for successful programs that already exist.
- Invest in systems coordination to reduce barriers. Whether across state agencies, organizations, or even within a single organization, it’s critical that all of these departments work together to ensure youth can access the services they need.
Overall, programs should emphasize empowerment and access. While leaving foster care is inevitable, there is much more that can be done to center youth voices and support their short and long term needs. As AYPF emphasizes, we have to change the narrative from simply “transitioning out of foster care” to “transitioning to opportunities.”