In most states, youths in foster care are on their own when they turn 18. Federal funding for their care is cut off when foster kids reach 18, leaving those who have not been adopted to fend for themselves, with little state support. Two states are now footing the bill to help foster-care youths who turn 18. Vermont this year became the second state, after Illinois, to use state money to extend its foster-care services to age 21, if a youth chooses to remain in the program.
While other states have adopted programs to help youths who are “emancipated” from foster care without permanent homes, states say their options are limited without federal funding.
Federal matching funds could become available to states under the Foster Care Continuing Opportunities Act (S. 1512), proposed by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The bill is aimed at helping states provide essential foster-care services such as food, housing and legal help to age 21. Without this kind of support, Boxer said, “the future for foster youth, once emancipated, is often bleak.”
“One of the most important factors in whether a person succeeds in life is whether they have a family they can depend on to help them,” said Julie Farber of Children’s Rights, a national watchdog group. If states fail to either reunify children with their families or find them permanent adopted families, “the least they can do is continue to support them through their transition to adulthood,” she said.
For those living in group homes, “kick out” happens within days of their 18th birthday, explained Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition, an advocacy group for children. “They sometimes end up sitting on a curb with their belongings in a black trash bag and nowhere to go,” she said.
Kristal McCoy, 23, who spent eight years in the foster-care system, became homeless at the end of her freshman year at California State University, Hayward, and started “couch surfing” with friends or relatives. Although the stress took a toll on her grades, McCoy graduated and now has a full-time job at the California Youth Connection, which lobbies for increased state support for foster youths.
McCoy beat the odds, but many others don’t. In response, states are finding new ways to continue supporting these vulnerable youths, despite the lack of federal money. All states provide some level of assistance to youths who leave the foster-care system, but only Illinois, the District of Columbia and now Vermont maintain formal foster care, said Gary Stangler of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a foundation that supports programs for youths leaving foster care.
Advocates for extending foster care say states would spend less money helping youths between 18 and 21 than bailing them out later.