Aging Out of Foster Care: The Unmet Needs of Youth
In December 2007, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies issued Aging Out of the Foster Care System to Adulthood: Findings, Challenges, and Recommendations, a report on the unmet needs of youth aging out of foster care in America. (Both Executive Summary and the full report are available online.)
Based on a literature review, a telephone survey of social workers and a series of "listening sessions" with youth and other stakeholders in the foster care system, the report's key findings include:
- Compared to other youth in the United States, youth who age out of foster care are less prepared to function independently.
- Nearly half (47 percent) of surveyed social workers rated the resources in their foster system as fair or poor. Only 11 percent rated them as excellent.
- Limited data is available about the outcomes of youth aging out of the foster care system.
- Many youth in foster care feel they lack adult advocates to guide them through life.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) awarded $273,100 to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies to study the unmet needs of youth aging out of foster care.
In 2005, African-American youth made up 32 percent of all children in the U.S. foster care system, although only 15.5 percent of youth under 18 in the United States were African American, according to the National Foster Care Coalition. The coalition also reports that every year some 20,000 children are emancipated from foster care when they turn 18, and are expected to transition to self-sufficiency, but many do not achieve this goal. Employment, educational, health and social barriers impede their capacity to function as independent adults.
Only about two-fifths of eligible foster children received the federal independent living services for which they are eligible, according to 2006 data from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. Coordination of service delivery between state and local providers has been inadequate, and information about the effectiveness of available support systems is limited.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, founded in 1970, conducts research and informs policy on issues of particular concern to African Americans and other people of color. The project described here, conducted by the Joint Center's Health Policy Institute, in partnership with Black Administrators in Child Welfare, helped inform RWJF as it considered opportunities for meeting the health and social needs of youth transitioning from the foster care system.
Although RWJF had made occasional grants over the years concerned with children in foster care, it had not funded projects concerned with the transition from foster care to adulthood.
Staff at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies assessed the unmet needs of young people formerly in foster care through a literature review, a telephone survey and "listening sessions":
- A telephone survey of 800 social workers, conducted by Research!America for the Joint Center, was designed to capture their views about youth aging out of foster care and about the services available to those youth and to the families with whom they live.
- The Black Administrators in Child Welfare conducted small, group "listening sessions" with 92 African-American youth either in or formerly in foster care, as well as with other stakeholders, such as child welfare agency staff, foster parents and members of community organizations.
These sessions, conducted in Jacksonville, Fla., Houston and Chicago, focused on three areas of concern during the transition to adulthood from foster care:
- Community connections and supportive relationships
- Education and career planning
- Life skills preparation.
The Joint Center issued a report on the findings, Aging Out of the Foster Care System to Adulthood: Findings, Challenges, and Recommendations.
Among findings from the literature review:
- The U.S. foster care system is not uniform, but rather consists of more than 50 separate systems. Federal and state governments jointly fund the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to provide support to youth aging out of foster care, but each state and territory configures and administers services differently.
- Although the legislation creating the Chafee program mandates that outcomes data be reported for youth receiving independent living services, this mandate has not been implemented. Published research is limited, with less information available for youth aging out of foster care than for youth still in the system.
- Compared to other youth in the United States, youth who age out of foster care are less prepared to function independently. Youth formerly in foster care are more likely to be:
- High school dropouts
- Suffering from medical or mental health problems
- Unemployed or homeless
- Involved in, or victims of, crime
- Relying on public assistance
- Living in poverty
- Socially isolated.
Among findings from the telephone survey of social workers:
- Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents rated the resources in their foster care systems as fair or poor, generally because there was "too little money" or because of bureaucratic rules. Only 11 percent rated them as excellent.
- Most respondents (81 percent) believed that their states provide job preparation and training for youth before they age out of foster care. However, an even larger majority (85 percent) believed that unemployment is either a major or a moderate problem once youth leave the system.
- Most respondents believe that significantly more services are available to youth before they age out of the foster care system than afterwards. For example, 70 percent believed their states provide all of the following services to youth before they age out: basic life skills training, interpersonal skills development, education or job training, health care, and education and counseling about substance use. Fewer than half (43.5 percent) of respondents believe their states provide any of these services after youth leave the system.
- Placing youth in multiple foster homes is a major problem, according to 61 percent of survey respondents. Among the consequences are lack of attachment, lack of stability, academic problems associated with changing schools frequently and lack of lasting friendships.
Among findings from the listening sessions with youth who were, or had been, in foster care and adult stakeholders:
- Many young people did not feel that they had any real advocates to guide them either as they navigate through the foster care system or afterwards.
- Although youth in foster care are supposed to receive life skills training and early guidance to help them plan for their futures, many reported receiving such guidance only after turning 17.
- Many youth complained about being inappropriately placed into special education classes that limited their future educational and employment opportunities. They expressed a desire for more enrichment experiences, such as cultural activities, and more support to help them deal with anger.
- Adult stakeholders felt that there was inadequate accountability for the state and federal dollars spent on the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. Stakeholders also noted that:
- Many males are placed in homes without positive male role models.
- The educational challenges that many youth in foster care experience reflect, at least in part, the lack of collaboration between the education and child welfare systems and the lack of an education advocate for the youth.
- Life skills training is inadequate for youth who face mental and physical challenges.
- Unstable placements cause some youth to leave foster care prematurely, forfeiting the receipt of independent living services.
The following recommendations, reported in Aging Out of the Foster Care System to Adulthood, suggest opportunities for philanthropic institutions to help youth in foster care transition to a productive adulthood:
- Determine the barriers to timely receipt of needed health services, and devise systems to remove those barriers.
- Establish more effective mechanisms for informing youth, foster parents, caseworkers and other stakeholders about the programs, resources and eligibility rules of foster care systems.
- Support the development of systems to collect comparable and consistent data across foster care systems.
- Rigorously evaluate programs that serve youth aging out of foster care to determine which programs work and why.
- Identify successful models for connecting local child welfare systems and other systems, resources and funding streams — such as educational and workforce development programs — to benefit youth in foster care.
- Implement demonstration programs designed to increase the involvement of adult males with youth in foster care and to test the effectiveness of peer support groups.
- Target interventions to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable populations. In particular, interventions should target youth with physical or mental challenges, African-American males, and pregnant or parenting youth.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches to administering programs and delivering services (i.e., by city, state or private agencies).
- Local connections are useful when trying to bring stakeholders together. The Washington-based consultant who organized the listening sessions initially found it challenging to identify and bring together appropriate parties in communities where she had no firsthand connections. (Project Director/Leigh)
- Design interview questions carefully, limiting opportunities for open-ended responses. The social workers interviewed for the survey were so eager to talk that it was sometimes difficult to keep discussions on track. Creating other opportunities for people to share information allows them to be heard while helping to maintain focused interviews. (Project Director/Leigh)
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Identifying and Assessing Opportunities for Improving Services to Youth Transitioning From Foster Care to Adulthood
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Inc. (Washington, DC)
Dates: October 2006 to August 2007
Wilhelmina A. Leigh, Ph.D.
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Leigh W, Huff D, Jones E and Marshall A. Aging Out of the Foster Care System to Adulthood: Findings, Challenges, and Recommendations. Washington: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, December 2007. Both the Executive Summary and the full report are available online.
Presentations and Testimony
Wilhelmina Leigh, "Aging Out of the Foster Care System to Adulthood: Findings, Challenges, and Recommendations," at the annual meeting of the National Foster Care Coalition, Washington, February 2008.
Report prepared by: Gina Shaw
Reviewed by: Karyn Feiden
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Kristin B. Schubert