California’s Foster Youth Struggle in Transition to Adulthood, Report Finds

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California’s foster youth transitioning into adulthood fare slightly better than the national average when it comes to finding a job and graduating from high school, according to a new report.

But these young people are still more likely to be unemployed or lack a high-school diploma or GED at age 21 than youth who’ve never been in foster care, the report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation indicates. About a quarter also lack stable housing, the findings show.

The report draws together state and national data on foster youth transitioning to adulthood. The data show that many aren’t receiving the support they need to create stable lives once they leave foster care.

In particular, more than half of foster youth both in California and nationwide age out of foster care without being reunited or connected to a family or other supportive adults, even though that’s been shown to help transitioning youths succeed.

The data “should be seen as a wake-up call to guide policymakers in advancing needed policy reform,” Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation said in a statement. “If we want to ensure young people don’t fall through the cracks after aging out of fostercare, then policymakers need to look at these data and embrace policies that will help young people become successful adults.””

Susan Abrams, director of policy and training for the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents thousands of foster children, said she wasn’t surprised by the report. State law requires agencies working with foster youth to make sure they’re connected with supportive adults when they leave foster care, but in many cases that’s not happening, she said.

“We’re not seeing that far too often,” Abrams said. “It’s an overwhelmed system.”

The result is many former foster youth end up homeless, incarcerated, or depending on public assistance to get by, she said.

Disadvantages early in the life of foster youth can set the stage for difficulties in adulthood, said Susanna Kniffen, Senior Director of Child Welfare Policy at the advocacy organization Children Now.

They experience the initial trauma of abuse or chaos in their biological families, which is then compounded by the trauma of being placed in foster care, she explained. This can lead to behavioral problems and difficulty in school, she said.

Additionally, many children face multiple foster placements, which makes it hard for them to establish stable, trusting relationships.

“It’s not a very healing system in a lot of ways,” Kniffen said. “We don’t do a great job, at least in California, of connecting our mental health system to young people in a positive way and helping them heal. So they feel disconnected.”

Data from the report show a third of foster youth ages 14 and older in the state have had more than one foster care episode. Half have experienced three or more foster care placements. And despite a push to house more children with relatives or foster families – which experts agree is  most optimal for these children – about a third of youth hadmost recently been in a group home or institutional setting.

California is working to improve the foster care system. Foster youth in the state are encouraged to stay in care until age 21, rather than leave at 18, which helps give them greater stability and a chance to mature, Kniffen said. More recently, the state has made reforms to try to make it easier for children to be placed with relatives, and streamline the process for parents who want to adopt foster kids in their care.

Kniffen said Children Now is also working with county welfare and behavioral health directors in the state to set up a crisis support line for foster parents and youth.

“A lot of it’s new, so it’s hard to see in the data yet, but we’re hopeful that a lot of the things that you see in this data are things that all of these new reforms were meant to help,” she said. “My hope is over the next couple of years you’ll start to see some real movement in the California data.”

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