Foster Care Until 21 Should Be the Rule, Not the Exception

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It has become the most poignant image of foster care in America: the plastic garbage bag. That’s the luggage that 18-year-olds often fill with their worldly goods when they have “aged out” of the system and are being launched into a world for which they are generally ill-prepared. It is also a tragic symbol of our country’s attitude toward these youngsters: In effect, they are being thrown away.

For years, our throw-away approach to youth in foster care was rationalized in part by the widely held belief that brain development is pretty much done by age six; therefore, the reasoning went, nothing more could be done for these young men and women. Increasingly, however, evidence is mounting that, far from being fully formed by kindergarten, the human brain is still developing and can be successfully “rewired” during and even beyond the teenage years.

Based on our new understanding of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain, we believe that it’s time to make significant changes in the way older youth and young adults are treated in foster care. Our foster care system is designed for very young children. But the structures that protect and nurture young children do a disservice to youth nearing adulthood.

As a result of their life experiences, older youth and young adults in foster care are often “disconnected”—they lack the family and community networks that are critical to becoming healthy, productive and successful adults.  Our overriding goal should be that these young people are “connected by 25”—that is, that they have access to a network of families, friends and communities that give them the essential guidance and support they’ll need as they transition into the adult world.

For years, we’ve maintained that the age of discharge from foster care should be raised to age 21. The findings of neuroscience underscore the merit of that argument. Child welfare systems can use those additional years to engage young people in building the social capital they need to succeed.

The first changes to make are their placements. In some states, more than half of adolescents in foster care live in group housing, an arrangement that denies them the normal, practical experiences that most kids in families have.  Foster care systems are designed to avoid risk, while we know that adolescents need healthy risk-taking in order to grow. State agencies typically make all of the decisions for youth. And when young people turn 18, we take away any support and tell them to be independent.

Accordingly, child welfare agencies should place these young people in family-based settings so they can build normal relationships and connect with caring adults who can help them build essential social capital, skills and confidence. At the same time, we can stimulate adolescent brains by giving them opportunities to pursue extracurricular activities of their choice, such as music or art.

Children typically enter foster care with complex histories and family relationships that can lead to chronic mental health problems—factors that are likely to affect their emotional, social and behavioral maturity. We need to ensure that child welfare workers recognize that their experience with trauma and loss may have disrupted and delayed their development. The good news is that, for the vast majority of these youngsters, it’s not too late to help them overcome the neurological impact of trauma, rewire their brains and build resilience. Our new report, The Adolescent Brain: New Research and its Implications for Young People Transitioning From Foster Care, sets forth our recommendations in more details.

It’s clear that the current system isn’t working. Over the past decade, more than 200,000 young people have left foster care when they turned 18. Studies show that, as adults, these young people are more likely than their peers who have not been in foster care to run into trouble with the law, fail to finish school, become pregnant, go without health insurance and be homeless. Additionally, young people who leave foster care at age 18 are, as adults, more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, require long-term government support, and experience life-long difficulties.

As their “legal parents,” we owe these young people a better future, and to meet that debt, we must make changes in our foster care system now. As parents and professionals, we’ve seen first-hand that young people don’t move seamlessly from adolescence to full-fledged adulthood at 18. Now that we better understand that their young brains are still developing, let’s recognize this not only as an opportunity but also as a neurological imperative.

Gary Stangler is Executive Director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative