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Aging Out of Foster Care
Today, there are approximately 100,000 young people in the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 21 who are about to leave or have already left foster care. For years, if not their entire lifetimes, their “parents” have been a state or county agency, and now, overnight, they are on their own. Most 18-year-olds coming from intact families can expect emotional and financial support for years to come; in the U.S. the average age a young person with support leaves home is age 25. Once a foster child turns 18 the state is no longer legally obligated to provide any assistance. Consequently, most youth aging out of foster care experience unhappy outcomes including homelessness and substance abuse. Additionally, more than half do not graduate from high school and only about one in eight graduate from a four-year college. Furthermore, four years after leaving care, 25% of youth who were in care have been homeless, 44% have been parents themselves and fewer than 20% are self-supporting.
In an effort to address the needs of older children and improve outcomes for them, Congress enacted and the president signed the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, also referred to as the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (Chafee Program). Amongst a number of services the Chafee Program provides young people, it offers financial, housing, counseling, employment, education and other appropriate supports and services to former foster care recipients between 18 and 21 years of age. The Chafee Program seeks to complement young people’s own efforts to achieve self-sufficiency and to assure that program participants recognize and accept their personal responsibility for preparing for and then making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The Chafee Program also provides a state option of Medicaid coverage for adolescents leaving foster care. Until May 2008, the State of Georgia did not provide Medicaid coverage for youth beyond age 19; through the advocacy of a group of youth called EmpowerMEnt, Medicaid coverage is now extended to age 21 for all youth who sign themselves back into the system, provided they were in foster care on their 18th birthday.
Foster Care Youth in Georgia
The state of Georgia has more than 14,000 youth in the custody (foster care) of the Department of Human Resources’ Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Nearly 4,000 of these youth are between the ages of 14 and 21. More than 400 youth become legally emancipated annually at the event of their 18th birthday. Of the youth in foster care in metro Atlanta, 78% are African American and more than 52% are parents. They also face a myriad of psychological barriers including mental retardation (30%), physical handicaps (5%), emotional handicaps (20%) or behavioral disorders (40%). These youth, often affected by childhood trauma, need considerable preparation and support services as they move from foster care, group homes and institutions to independent living situations. Most Georgia foster care children have been physically abused (16.5%), sexually abused (7.7%), neglected (69.4%), abandoned (11.1%) and separated from drug-addicted parents (29.4%) or incarcerated parents (10.4%). Many long-term foster children have never experienced stable homes.
Young people in foster care between the ages of 14 and 21 are a part of the State’s Independent Living Program (ILP) and are required to have a written transitional living plan (WTLP) that serves as a guide or road map in determining services needed for the youth. With the input and assistance of the independent living coordinator, an assessment is conducted of the youth’s transitional living skills and needs. Everything, including mutually identified goals that will result in successful emancipation, is documented. Additionally, the foster youth is required to be involved in the development of the WLTP. Upon reaching age 18, a youth who wants to stay in foster care placement must sign a consent form to remain in foster care, provided that DFCS and the youth mutually agree that continued foster care placement is consistent with the WLTP goals. Youth are allowed to remain in the ILP until reaching age 21.
What determines whether a young person leaving foster care approaches adulthood and independence with the resources and expectations to be successful or ends up homeless or unemployed? There is no simple answer to that question. Yet, common sense, empirical research and testimony from foster youth themselves all underscore the importance of comprehensive preparation for independent living, opportunities for economic success and encouragement to aim high. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Services and Casey Family Programs have provided significant leadership in the area of youth transitioning out of foster care. In 2008, the group released a report titled Young People Need Families: Practice Strategies to Make Permanence a Priority. According to the report, to thrive, young people need family plus – families with strong relationships plus effective preparation for adulthood, including life skills development; a strong education coupled with job readiness and career planning; and access to quality housing and health care. Research from the group along with input from young people who have been in foster care indicates that good permanency strategies include:
- Involving young people in their own case planning and decision making. Young people need to be involved in – not protected from – their own case planning, starting on the first day they are brought into care.
- Reconsidering the role of birth family. Families matter to young people in foster care. Increasingly, child welfare practice is focusing on providing supports that enable families to remain together – involving family in planning with a young person, even if parents cannot take care of that young person full time.
- Teaming to strengthen or build permanent family relationships. Teaming for permanence is an approach that focuses on a young person’s short- and long-term needs for safety, well-being and family plus.
- Building strong partnerships with the courts. Court processes and judicial decision making must address teens’ and families’ need for adequate legal representation and provide a voice for youth in their own court proceedings.