Foster Youth vs. The Average American Teenager: Should They Be Treated Differently?

Hi everyone!! Below is an article that I recently wrote for USC Annenberg Media. Please check it out. Thank you!

Foster Youth vs. the Average American Teenager: Should They be Treated Differently? 

Children are in foster care because they or their families are going through a crisis. Often, these children - from babies to teens - have been removed from their parents because of physical or sexual abuse, emotional and medical neglect, incarceration, abandonment, death, truancy, or voluntary placement. These kids enter the system at all different ages and they all require different levels of care.  Mark Courtney, the lead researcher in The California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study, or CalYOUTH says, “There is already a lot of water under the bridge before they even enter into care.”

In 25 states, these children are still required to leave the system on their 18th birthday, regardless of the amount of time they have spent in the system or their readiness to live independently. In the CalYOUTH study, Courtney found that by June of their senior year, a majority of foster youth will not be able to graduate high school on time. By age 21, 84 percent earn a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED), and 50 percent will have started college.

In the 25 states that don’t offer extended foster care, foster youth are often released without a high school diploma or GED. 80 percent of them have significant mental health issues as a result of frequently changing situations, broken family relationships and inconsistent access to mental health services and trauma. Many require expensive medication to help them operate in their daily lives, but without a high school diploma or GED, many are unable to receive a job with benefits and health insurance that would allow them access to doctors and medication.  This could make them vulnerable to using illegal narcotics and abusing prescription drugs which could lead to other problems like losing their jobs, homelessness, and incarceration. The Affordable Care Act includes a provision that says if you are still in foster care on your 18th birthday, you are eligible to receive Medicaid until your 26th birthday, the same age that parents can keep their adult children on their insurance.

“This part of the Affordable Care Act suggests that Congress and President Obama recognized that, well, if our kids are going to stay on our insurance until 26, don't we want our kids [the former foster youth aging out of the system] to have health insurance up to age 26?” says Courtney.

So why are foster youth, who have experienced significant trauma as young children, expected to function at a rate higher than the average American young adult?

“The average American child isn't fully leaving their parents home until they are 25 or 26, but we are expecting young people who have experienced trauma to navigate the world at 18 fully. And that's not reasonable,” says Ami Rowland, the chief operating officer of Covenant House, a group that provides resources for homeless youth. 

Two main exit processes are currently in effect for foster youth, but each child has a different situation. In 25 states, foster youth exit the system at 18. They work with their social worker to create an exit plan that includes housing, jobs, and plans for higher education. The other 25 states currently receive federal support to provide foster care up to age 21. The program offers social work services like emotional support, but also helps them with pursuing higher education and finding housing. There are also other federal programs that help former foster youth continue higher education. The CalYOUTH study also found that if a foster child is in a state that has extended foster care, the majority stay in care around or up to their 21st birthday. The study also found that young people under extended foster care were doing much better on average then those who did not have extended foster care.

“Extending care until 21 is a commitment that reflects a policy that is completely different than what we used to have. But it isn't enough. We need to learn how to provide foster care up to age 21 more effectively than we do right now, and we need to think about the kind of support that we can provide past 21,” says Courtney.

The foster system is designed to help take children out of toxic and dangerous situations. Two-thirds of former foster youth reflected at 21 saying that they were lucky to have been placed into foster care and a higher percentage are satisfied with their experience in care. But, the system is not perfect. These children experience trauma that is unimaginable to most people, and they are also dealing with the typical issues that arise with growing up. Young adults need support, and they typically get it from their family, but foster youth don’t have the same resources.

“Sometimes kids don't get picked up and brought into foster care, or they do late in life. And at that point, they aren't as interested in a foster family or something else that the system has to offer them. There are always childcare reforms that have good intentions, but at the end of the day, we don't have enough families that can actually handle some of the levels of behavior and trauma that a lot of the kids in foster care have experienced, so they fail because they don’t have the continued support of a family,” says Rowland.

Federal law says that states have the option to opt into this program, but it is not required. Since Assembly Bill 1 , which grants extended care until age 21 was passed, 25 states have opted in with 1 more state in the process of offering extended care

“Legislators know that they would not kick their adult children out of the house at 18, and are recognizing a state obligation to continue to provide care to young adults, and allows the states to continue to parent the young people as young adults,” says CalYouth’s Mark Courtney.

One main question that arises with the extended foster care policy is, why age 21? Although it may seem insignificant to keep these kids in care for a few more years, the extra three years offer foster youth the chance to mature and have access to higher education and counseling services before going into the world.

“Kids that grow up in the system don't have what most kids have: a stable home and an example of what their lives should look like. So when they run from group homes or the foster care system, they are easily snatched up by exploiters and traffickers and easily brought into the drug scene. Because they are very vulnerable, they get lost, and they end up homeless or incarcerated.” says Rowland.

Not only does the extended care program give foster youth the chance to mature, but it also helps to keep them out of harm's way. About one-half of the young people aging out of foster care will spend a night homeless or in jail by age 21. If more states opt into providing extended foster care to their youth, the number of former foster youth who are homeless or incarcerated could be dramatically reduced, therefore getting them off of the streets, out of jails, and into families for a few more years. 

The foster care system can be seen as a glass half-full situation. The system does a lot of good things for youth, but there are a lot of improvements to be made so that the kids will be better prepared to function as healthy, happy and active members of society. Courtney says the first step is education.

“More states to learn about how they are doing serving these young people and to share this information with other states. We need to continue to learn from states that have extended foster care up to age 21, to show that extended care is benefitting young people. That's the best way to convince other states to change the law. We need to learn how to implement this policy better; we’ve only been doing it for a short time,” says Courtney.

 In the meantime, other ways to support foster youths is to become a foster family or to become involved with an organization to provide resources and opportunities for foster youth. You can read more about becoming a foster family here.