Foster Care Youths Leaving the System Before They Age Out, Study Finds

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BETHESDA, Maryland — Youth in the foster care system are leaving before they age out of the system, a new report finds.

Forty states offer at least some form of support for youths until their 21st birthday, yet nearly three-quarters of social service officials told researchers that their wards were overwhelmingly leaving the system when they turned 18, Child Trends says in a new report. It doesn’t address the reason why.

“This is concerning because research has shown that young people who remain in care to age 21 are less likely to experience homelessness or become pregnant before age 21, and are more likely to be employed and attend college compared with those who leave care at age 18,” Child Trends said in its new report, released late last week.

Youth in foster care already fare more poorly than average, the report said. Nearly one-quarter of those who “age out” of foster care are in jail within two years of leaving the system, national statistics show. Another one-fifth are homeless, more than two-fifths are high school dropouts and more than two-thirds are pregnant or parents, statistics show.

Life Outcomes Youth Involved with Foster Care General Population
Graduate high school by age 19 59 percent 87 percent
Earn a college degree by age 25 Less than 3 percent 28 percent
Employed at age 26 46 percent 80 percent
Get health care through their jobs 51 percent 79 percent
26-year-olds who earned any income from employment during the previous year 70 percent 94 percent

Source: Child Trends, “Supporting Young People Transitioning from Foster Care”

Overall, Child Trends researchers found that states offered a fairly uniform menu of services to youths in their foster care systems, but that there was “a steep drop off in available services and support as soon as young people reach age 21.”

Affordable housing was the biggest problem area, a majority of state officials told researchers.

“Over time, and without concerted improvement in how aged-out youth are supported, this increase in the number of children in foster care will translate into an increase in young adults who struggle to live on their own,” Home Society spokesman Massie Ritsch said.

Matt Fraidin is a dean at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school who has spent much of his career fighting to improve child welfare bureaucracies. He called Child Trends’ data only further evidence of a regime that has to be overthrown.

“The outcomes have long been terrible vis-a-vis jobs, incarceration, education, teen pregnancy, exposure to dating violence, et cetera,” he said.

Fraidin has long argued that “neglect” laws are weapons used to make war on the nation’s poor. He leans on the decades of research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Joseph J. Doyle and others, who have found that kids in foster care are more likely to wind up in jail, become teen parents, suffer from poverty and wind up in juvenile detention and emergency rooms.

For Fraidin, the conclusion is simple — but painful.

“Foster care sucks,” he said. “It hurts kids and sends them out into the world as walking wounded, having bounced from home to home, split up from their siblings, bonds with family and friends and community irretrievably broken in many instances, deprived in foster care of services and supports they needed, never healed from the trauma of being taken from their families or from any abuse or neglect that might have occurred, and cut loose to make their way on their own.”