California Extends Foster Care to 21

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The state with the nation’s most foster youths will no longer just cut them loose when they turn 18.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last month to extend services such as transitional housing, student financial aid, counseling and tutoring to foster youth until age 21.

The bill, which will be phased in over three years starting Jan. 1, 2012, is seen by supporters as groundbreaking because of  its potential impact on aged-out foster youth – who often wind up unschooled, jobless or homeless – and on the expansion of government-funded services despite the state’s financial troubles.

“This is truly going to be life-changing for some of our most vulnerable youth,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center, who helped state legislators draft the bill. “I know so many young people right now who are parenting their own children, who are out in the street using shelters, who this bill could change their own lives and the paths of their children.”

Roughly one-fifth of the nation’s 423,000 foster children live in California, where under previous law, 5,000 foster youth every year stop receiving services when they reach 18.  

The law is also seen as a boost to efforts by many child welfare advocates to extend services to age 21 throughout the United States. The cost of the California bill, known as AB-12 (Assembly Bill 12), can be covered through a variety of means, including funding from the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.

Rodriguez, once a foster youth herself, said the bill offers options for aged-out foster youth in a variety of situations. “It’s possible youth will be able to live in their own apartment and receive the benefit, live with a relative, live in a college dorm,” Rodriguez said. “There’s just an array of options that individualize services for young people.”

In signing the bill, Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement, “Our foster care youth deserve every opportunity to succeed in life, and extending foster benefits and services through age 21 will help better equip them with the necessary tools.”

A new study by the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS) and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by the Stuart Foundation, found that foster care children do much worse in school than their peers from other “at-risk” populations.

The new bill will prolong foster care services to age 21 for young people who get a job, stay in school or enroll in a job training program. Participation in the program is voluntary and requires oversight.  Every six months, a juvenile court hearing would be held to ensure that the participant is making progress, and the child welfare system is meeting its obligations.