Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is days away from signing or vetoing legislation that would extend foster care services in California to age 21 – which could help those seeking to spread such policies in other states.
The expansion would provide targeted services such as transitional housing, student financial aid, counseling and academic tutoring to foster youth after age 18.
That would be a significant development, because about one-fifth of the nation’s 423,000 foster children live in California, and each year nearly 5,000 of them age out of care when they turn 18.
In addition, California would become one of the first states seeking to extend such services with federal funding under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.
“If he signs it, it will say … these kids are important enough, and the cost of not doing this is big enough, that we should go ahead,” said Linda Spears, vice president for policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America. “It’s an important message” to other states.
As of April, only one state had submitted a plan to extend services under Fostering Connections, according to the latest information from the U.S. Administration on Children and Families (ACF). This summer the ACF released new rules for extending foster care services to older youth.
With a Sept. 30 deadline looming for the governor to act on the California measure, known as AB-12, supporters on Thursday released preliminary data from an upcoming study to bolster their case.
Troubles in school
The study by the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS) and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by the Stuart Foundation, adds to the body of evidence about the poor academic achievement of foster youth as a group.
The researchers linked data from California’s Child Welfare Services/Case Management System with education records to investigate how the state’s foster youth do in high school and college. It found that, even when compared with their peers from other “at risk” populations – low socio-economic status, non-White, English language learners or children with disabilities – foster youth fared worse, achieving lower rates of proficiency across every measured category.
In eighth grade, for example, 22 percent of foster youth were English-proficient, compared with 29 percent of the comparison group and 41 percent of the general population. In 11th grade, only 6 percent of foster youth were proficient in math, versus 14 percent of the comparison group and 18 percent of the general population.
Foster youth continued to lag behind their peers in college; they were more likely to drop out or be enrolled in the lowest level of remedial courses, according to the study. What’s more, only 2.4 percent of foster youth received an associate’s degree, compared with 6.5 percent of other at-risk youth.
Child advocates were heartened by some of the data. The report found that most foster youth who receive supportive services while in college can succeed and even out-perform their peers nationwide. When they were given the types of supports provided for in AB-12, these youth remained in college at a higher average rate, 71 percent, than the national average of 56 percent.
“It shows that these are not throw-away kids,” said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes in San Francisco, one of eight organizational co-sponsors of AB-12. “Despite incredible educational deficits, these kids are able to succeed in higher education.”
How it would work
AB-12 was sent to the governor’s desk with broad bipartisan support – a rarity in these times of multi-billion-dollar budget deficits and deep cutbacks to education and social services. The bill would prolong foster care services to age 21 only 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.
The legislation’s sponsors say it is cost-neutral. It takes advantage of federal matching funds as allowed under the Fostering Connections Act, and converts an existing state-subsidized family guardianship program into a federally subsidized program. Even after extending services to age 21, the result would be a net savings of $15 million annually, according to sponsors.
Many states extend some services to some foster youth after age 18, and three states – Illinois, New York and Vermont – have “comprehensive programs” to extend foster care to age 21, according to the CWLA.
Evidence shows that when foster youth are supported past the age of 18, they are more likely to thrive. A 2007 study by Chapin Hall of former foster youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin showed that when services were extended to age 21, rates of homelessness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, arrest and incarceration all dropped significantly. Substance abuse problems and mental health disorders were also less prevalent in residents of Illinois, where discharge from foster care had long been set at age 21.
If signed by Schwarzenegger, AB-12 would be phased in over three years starting in 2012. An amendment designed to garner Republican support requires services beyond age 20 to be subject to budget appropriations. Other cost containment measures would keep older foster youth out of expensive group home placements, require transitional housing to be funded within the existing state budget and require counties to shoulder their share of the costs of extended care.
Sacramento insiders say it’s a toss-up whether Schwarzenegger will approve the legislation. Said State Assemblyman Jim Beall (D-San Jose), co-author of AB-12, “These are kids who have been abused and have been taken away from their parents and put in the public trust, and we cannot send them out on the streets when they’re 18.”
Elaine Korry writes about education and social policy from the San Francisco Bay area.