From the National Conference on State Legislatures, November 9, 2017

Supporting older youth in the transition from foster care to adulthood has long been of interest to state legislatures.  Nearly a quarter of the approximately 427,000 children in foster care are age 14 or older and more than 18,000 young people age out of foster care at age 18 each year. The challenges facing older youth in foster are immense.

More recently, with new research on brain science and how trauma and frequent placements in foster care may affect early and adolescent development, this interest has grown.

Supporting older youth involves many components, including the option to extend foster care or allow reentry into foster care, providing the most normal childhood experience possible through extracurricular activities, educational stability and opportunity, transitioning from foster care to independent living, and housing. When looking at these policy options, the ability to engage current and former foster youth is invaluable.

Extending Foster Care Beyond Age 18

By the time they age out of foster care, usually at age 18, many young people bear the scars of physical abuse and emotional trauma. Children in foster care often face exposure (including prenatally) to alcohol and other drugs, parental abuse, neglect and abandonment, violence in their homes and communities, separation from birth families, and frequent changes in foster care placement. These experiences can place children at great risk of developing physical, emotional and behavioral problems that can lead to school failure, teen pregnancy, homelessness, unemployment and incarceration.

By the Numbers

Youth Aging Out of Care at 18, by the Numbers…

  • 1-in-5was homeless.
  • 36 percent of youth in one study had been homeless at least once by age 26; nearly half of those youth had been homeless more than once and nearly 75 percent had been homeless four or more times.
  • A third lived in a least three different places; 20 percent had lived in four or more.
  • Only 58 percent graduated high school by 19 (compared with 87 percent of all 19-year olds).
  • One fifth of 26-year-old’s did not have a high school diploma or GED; only 8 percent of these young adults had earned a postsecondary degree.
  • Only 46 percent of youth in the same study were employed.
  • $13,989 was the average income earned at age 26 and 26 (compared to $32,312 for youth in the general population.
  • 1 in 4 were involved in the criminal justice system within 2 years of leaving care.
  • 30 percent of 21-year-old former foster youth reported criminal justice system involvement.
  • By age 26, the majority of young women and four fifths of young men in the study had been arrested; nearly one-third of those young women and almost two-thirds of the young men had spent at least one night in jail since they were 18 years old.
  • Nearly 80 percent of young women became pregnant by age 26 (compared with 55 percent of young women in the general population).
  • Nonresident children of these mothers were most likely to be living with foster or adoptive parents (compared with nonresident children of mothers in the general population who were most likely to be living with grandparents or other relatives).

Youth Remaining in Care Beyond 18…

  • Doubled the odds that they would be working or in high school at 19.
  • Were twice as likely to have completed at least one year of college by age 21.
  • Doubled the percentage of youth remaining in care until 21 who earned a college degree.
  • Reduced by 38 percent the incidence of pregnancy among young women in care before age 20.

Cost Savings

  • $72,000 estimated increase in per-person lifetime earnings by extending foster care.
  • $481,000 more in projected earnings over their work life for former foster youth with a college degree compared to those with only a high school diploma.
  • $2.40 return on each dollar spent on extended foster care with the attainment of a bachelor’s degree, according to a cost benefit analysis conducted in California.

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