Supporting Young People Transitioning from Foster Care: Findings from a National Survey

ReportChild WelfareNov 14 2017

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a time full of excitement, growth, and change. Critical brain development occurs during adolescence and early adulthood, and can be supported by strong and stable connections with family, friends, and community. With these supportive connections, young people can grow into healthy adults. Youth and young adults with foster care experience often miss out on some of the key resources needed during this time, reducing their chances to locate safe and stable housing, find steady and meaningful employment, and build strong and positive relationships with members of their social networks. They are more likely to experience homelessness and involvement with the justice system and less likely to graduate from high school or college.

With support from the Better Housing Coalition and Children’s Home Society of Virginia, Child Trends conducted a national survey of state independent living coordinators (Survey on Services and Supports for Young People Transitioning from Foster Care). Survey findings, collected in 2016, are based on responses by Independent Living Coordinators from 47 of 52 states and territories contacted. They describe the array and availability of services and supports for youth and young adults who have experienced foster care, highlighting state trends and examples of innovation in six major service areas: 1) post-secondary education; 2) employment and career development; 3) financial capability; 4) safe, stable, and affordable housing; 5) health and mental health care; and 6) permanent relationships with supportive adults. Several key findings stand out as particularly critical:

  • Although foster care is almost always available in some form to youth over age 18, three quarters of states report that most young people leave foster care before the maximum age permitted. Nearly every state reported that foster care can be extended beyond age 18, with 40 of the 47 states that responded to the survey reporting that it is available to at least some young people up to age 21. However, in 27 states that extend foster care to age 21 or older, young people typically leave at age 18. 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 18.1,2,3
  • Across every category, the service array is similar for youth ages 18 to 21 in foster care and those 18 to 21 who have left foster care. This means that states have very similar services and supports available (or in some cases, not available) regardless of whether a youth is in foster care or has left foster care. However, we do not know the utilization rates or how these services are operationalized in each state.
  • There is a steep drop off in available services and supports as soon as young people reach age 21, the age of legal majority in most states. However, most states continue to provide at least some opportunities for this population, especially in post-secondary education, employment and career development, and accessing and managing health and mental health care. Overall, states typically offer these services to those who are under 21 as well (in or out of care).
  • Partnerships with other agencies are a key part of supporting this population. Independent Living Coordinators from child welfare state agencies reported that they work with several other state agencies to develop and deliver services for transition-age youth. Specifically, the juvenile justice agency, the state agency that provides workforce trainings and supports, the state agency that manages services and assistance for adults with disabilities, the state’s housing agency, and schools all help child welfare agencies as they work with this population. Some states find that having an official interagency work group helps them streamline services and supports more efficiently.
  • Many states are adopting evidence-based or evidence-informed programs or practices, but there is much room for growth. Overall, states report similar numbers of such programs and practices in each of the service areas, ranging from 19 states with evidence-based or -informed permanency supports to 11 states with such physical health supports. However, 11 states reported no such programs or policies in any of the six service categories. Using evidence-based or evidence-informed programs and practices means that states are implementing strategies that have been shown effectiveness or promise in other locations.
  • Housing was the area most commonly reported as being in need of improvement. States were asked to report a primary area of strength and a primary area in which they could do better in supporting young people transitioning from foster care. Twenty-one states responded that housing was a primary area in need of improvement or an area in which their state is actively working to improve, specifically through providing transitional and/or affordable housing. Without stable housing, young people face challenges staying in school, gaining employment, accessing physical and mental health services, and reaching self-sufficiency.

States offer a wide range of services and supports to youth who are in foster care or have recently aged out of foster care. While we do not know how many young people are taking advantage of these services and supports, we hope these findings will spark further innovation and additional strategies to ensure that all youth have a safe and healthy transition to adulthood.