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Aging Out of Foster Care

Introduction and Review of Past Literature

Foster care recipients often face the risks of adverse life outcomes and health issues of different nature, so foster care systems are to create the best possible circumstances to support such citizens’ healthy physical, emotional, and psychosocial development. However, aging out of foster care can sometimes reveal the presence of barriers to young people’s smooth and effortless transition into independence. When foster care recipients become legally recognized as adults, they lose eligibility for services that the welfare system provides, such as housing, medical aid, and care.

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The issue deserves attention since aging out from foster care may create an overly abrupt transition to independent life. Being left without financial and emotional support, those exiting foster care may experience the increased risks of unwanted outcomes, such as bad financial decisions, crime, addiction disorders, unhealthy relationships, and similar issues. Just like emerging adults raised by biological parents, individuals that age out of the system may lack well-developed decision-making and life skills to analyze the long-term consequences of their actions and make the best possible choices. Given a number of risks associated with exiting foster care and independent living, it is of great importance to research the stated topic and strategies to support emerging adults and prevent them from high-risk behaviors.

Peer-reviewed literature confirms the status of leaving foster care after reaching the age of adulthood as an event that increases young people’s risks of unfavorable life outcomes, including homelessness, disease, and an increased propensity to crime. Up to 37% of people experience homelessness in the first few years following aging out of foster care, and up to 50% of these individuals are affected by housing instability (Shah et al., 2017). Worse still, statistical research shows that more than 65% of homelessness episodes take place during the first six months after aging out of foster care (Rosenberg & Kim, 2017). Based on the experiences of former foster care recipients in Washington, Shah et al. (2017) demonstrate that the risks of homelessness after aging out are incredibly high for racial minorities, young parents, and those with the experience of disrupted adoptions. Unlike their peers that have never been in the care system, those aging out of it are more likely to develop mental health issues/addictions and experience criminal involvement (Shah et al., 2017). Therefore, the evidence that demonstrates the problematic consequences of aging out of care is abundant.

Topic-Specific Information

Aging Out of Foster Care: Current Trends

Every year, thousands of young people exit foster care in the United States due to achieving the age of independence. Almost a quarter of one million children exited the U.S. care system in 2019 due to different reasons, including reunification with families, adoption, guardianship, and emancipation (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020b). Out of all reported exits in 2019, 8% or more than 20,400 discharges were related to reaching full legal age (The U.S. DHHS, 2020a). In comparison, in the previous financial year, the number of those leaving foster care due to age was less than 18,000 and represented 7% of all exits (The U.S. DHHS, 2019). As these figures demonstrate, the number of young foster care recipients that age out and should start an independent life has increased recently. Considering rather strong positive links between aging out, homelessness, and crime, this trend might have implications for the number of crimes committed by youth.

Based on media reports, it seems that the problem of aging out from foster care is recognized more than before. It is likely to be the result of new socio-economic challenges associated with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Harper (2020) argues that the shutdowns of educational institutions in May have exposed emerging adults’ increasing reliance on foster care benefits to afford housing and other basic needs, thus making the transition to independence even more complicated.

In New York State, there is still some uncertainty regarding the authorities’ response to the discussed vulnerable group’s challenges. In May, despite the need to address the new needs of aging-out youth, New York refused to join other jurisdictions that had offered extra measures to protect those individuals from homelessness and continue services for those aged 21 and older (Conn, 2020). Later, in June, the members of the New York State Assembly proposed a bill that would require the state to allow aging-out young adults to stay in the system for half a year after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic (McKay, 2020). As Dervishi (2020) reports, the bill was not reviewed and accepted even in August, which caused the representatives of child welfare organizations to reiterate the proposal. However, some measures were still implemented, and the state let counties use funding needed to support placement with siblings in order to increase housing support for those aging out (Dervishi, 2020).

Aging Out and Associated Challenges

Multiple studies on the life circumstances of young individuals who have aged out of the system indicate that these people may experience numerous challenges after leaving care settings. Although the practice of letting children remain in the system until they reach the legal age of adulthood is many decades old, the issues of those aging out of care did not seem to receive much attention in past centuries (Rymph, 2017). Today, it is known that almost 40% of these individuals experience homelessness after exiting the system, and being a person of color or a young parent only exacerbates these risks (Rosenberg & Kim, 2017; Shah et al., 2017).

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Aging out of foster care can also be associated with psychological and health issues affecting the success of one’s transition to independence. Based on different studies conducted between 2007 and 2017, individuals with foster care histories face different issues, such as depression, anxiety, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, learning disorders, and chronic illness, more often than their peers (Collins et al., 2018). As per the phenomenological study by Collins et al. (2018), this vulnerability to diverse health issues continues to manifest itself after foster care recipients reach the age of adulthood. In particular, after exiting foster care, many young adults face challenges associated with healthcare services use. They include the lack of self-care and pain management skills, limited knowledge on how to regain health insurance, and limited access to family health history (Collins et al., 2018). Considering this, among other things, the unfavorable outcomes of former foster youth are probably linked to the lack of knowledge and skills related to gaining and using medical insurance, healthy eating, birth control, the basics of self-care, and other relevant topics.

The educational and career opportunities of aging-out young individuals are also critical to consider with reference to specific difficulties during one’s transition to living as a full-fledged adult. Using the systematic review method, Häggman-Laitila et al. (2019) summarized the results of thirteen studies that had explored the life outcomes of more than 3,500 former foster care recipients (mostly U.S. citizens) aged between 17 and 22. According to the results, despite self-belief, those who had aged out of care faced rather pronounced risks of unemployment and poor educational attainment. For instance, only 41% of foster care leavers met the definition of “stable-engaged individuals” and reported satisfaction with their housing, learning, and employment circumstances (Häggman-Laitila et al., 2019, p. 655). As for the remaining 59% of foster care leavers, about two-thirds of them did not have high school diplomas, and almost 80% did not have stable employment or any jobs at all (Häggman-Laitila et al., 2019). As a group, former recipients of foster care services can be regarded as a vulnerable population when it comes to school graduation rates, dropouts, and the resulting employment outcomes.

Applicable Theory

As the life course theory suggests, it is critical for foster care practices and policies to reflect the reality of living independently after exiting foster care and losing many sources of support. Due to its ability to “emphasize dynamic change and social context,” the life course theory is recognized as a helpful research paradigm when it comes to foster care research (Brady & Gilligan, 2018, p. 70). The perspective encourages the identification of links between life experiences during childhood/adolescence and life outcomes in adulthood instead of assessing life stages in isolation (Brady & Gilligan, 2018). For example, modern research implies that poor educational attainment of those aging out may be related to a combination of factors that start to affect children when they first enter foster care. These factors include placement stability, the degree to which education is encouraged by carers, and support from at least one significant adult (Brady & Gilligan, 2018). To reduce the risks of poor educational outcomes in the selected group, it can be helpful to focus on learning motivation strategies to prevent foster care children from losing the natural sense of curiosity.

The selected theory can be used to highlight the need for timely access to opportunities to learn relevant information about independent living. As per the life course theory, the timing of life changes and interventions can have a significant impact on care leavers’ life outcomes (Brady & Gilligan, 2018). Before reaching the age of majority and making plans regarding independent life, individuals in foster care should have enough opportunities to learn how to become independent and deal with everyday issues without help. Many of these young people’s educational needs are adequately addressed with the help of Preparation for Adult Living services aimed at those aged between sixteen and eighteen. Despite their benefits, these currently available services do not seem to pay enough attention to street survival skills and physical self-protection skills that many foster care leavers might find helpful.

Applicable Legislation

The framework for assisting the discussed population has been created by federal legislation. In 1986, the U.S. Government introduced the so-called Independent Living Initiative to support aging-out youth and facilitate their transition to independence (Courtney, 2019). Within the frame of this initiative, states are provided with funds to design and implement educational programs to prepare foster care recipients aged at least 16 for entering independent life (Fowler et al., 2017). However, as of 2015, ILP programs in different states varied in terms of content and quality, and only about 50% of all adolescents in foster care received such services (Fowler et al., 2017). Next, the Foster Care Independence Act enacted in 1999 aimed to expand federal funding for programs to teach essential life skills to young people approaching the age of majority (Fowler et al., 2017). The aforementioned act called for the creation of a special system that would allow tracking and assessing ILP programs in each state (Fowler et al., 2017). As a result, the NYT (National Youth in Transition) database was created to facilitate the aggregation of data peculiar to the availability and usage of ILP services.

Practical Considerations

Regarding practical considerations, young people leaving foster care due to their age should receive substantial support from the system to develop essential decision-making and life skills to care for themselves. Teenagers in foster care should be taught the basics of financial literacy, including, for instance, lessons on insurance, the interpretation of credit reports, or the prevention of identity theft. It is essential to provide financial tips for young adults about managing money, including the importance of financial self-control, thinking about the future, having an emergency fund, and saving for retirement. As per the report by the Administration for Children and Families (2019), ILP services related to financial management are often underutilized. In some U.S. states, including Utah, West Virginia, Maryland, and Michigan, less than 10% of the recipients of ILP services received training in money management in 2018, compared to 43% in New York (ACF, 2019). Considering the pivotal role of proper money management skills in independent life, it may be essential to improve young people’s access to this type of ILP services, especially when it comes to specific vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities or individuals with disabilities.

Next, ILP services focused on other forms of self-care, such as the prevention of lifestyle diseases, are equally important and should not be provided with delays or to a limited number of foster care recipients. It is essential to educate young adults in foster care about reading food labels, keeping to a healthy diet without extra expenses, STD prevention, personal hygiene, pernicious habits, and similar topics. The links between young people’s awareness of these issues and the ability to make healthier choices when living independently are rather clear. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that health education ILP services are prioritized in all parts of the United States. In 2018, in twelve U.S. states, less than 20% of ILP service recipients received health education training (ACF, 2019). Given that former foster care recipients face multiple health risks, measures to increase the provision of health education services to those preparing for independent life would probably be beneficial for foster care leavers and their health outcomes.

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Conclusion and Recommendations

To sum up, aging out of care can be listed among significant issues peculiar to the modern foster care system. The issue of aging out of care has gained additional attention recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on employment opportunities. Based on the discussion of practical considerations, to make aging out less stressful and reduce the risks of adverse outcomes for former foster care recipients, it may be essential to emphasize the development of essential life skills in emerging adults. In particular, it can be recommended to increase the proportion of teenagers and young adults receiving ILP services. More specifically, the provision of some types of ILP services, including personal finance and health education, may need to be increased to make sure that young people leave the system with adequate money management and self-care skills.

References

The Administration for Children and Families. (2019). Percent of youth receiving independent living services by type of service, 2016-2018. Web.

Brady, E., & Gilligan, R. (2018). The life course perspective: An integrative research paradigm for examining the educational experiences of adult care leavers? Children and Youth Services Review, 87, 69-77.

Collins, J. L., Jimenez, R., & Thomas, L. J. (2018). Health out of foster care as young adults age out of foster care: A phenomenological exploration of seeking healthcare services after aging out of the US foster care system. Child Abuse & Neglect, 81, 322–331.

Conn, M. (2020). In New York, no help coming from state for aging-out foster youth. The Imprint: Youth and Family News. Web.

Courtney, M. E. (2019). The benefits of extending state care to young adults: Evidence from the United States of America. In V. D. Mann-Feder & M. Goyette (Eds.), Leaving care and the transition to adulthood: International contributions to theory, research, and practice (pp. 131-148). Oxford University Press.

Dervishi, K. (2020). The struggle to help youth aging out of foster care in New York. NYN Media. Web.

Fowler, P. J., Marcal, K. E., Zhang, J., Day, O., & Landsverk, J. (2017). Homelessness and aging out of foster care: A national comparison of child welfare-involved adolescents. Children and Youth Services Review, 77, 27-33.

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Häggman-Laitila, A., Salokekkilä, P., & Karki, S. (2019). Young people’s preparedness for adult life and coping after foster care: A systematic review of perceptions and experiences in the transition period. Child & Youth Care Forum, 48, 633-661.

Harper, A. (2020). COVID-19 complicates transition for foster youth aging out. ABC News. Web.

McKay, M. (2020). Lawmakers aim to address the problem of aging out of foster care during a pandemic. Spectrum News.

Rosenberg, R., & Kim, Y. (2017). Aging out of foster care: Homelessness, post-secondary education, and employment. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 12(1), 99–115.

Rymph, C. E. (2017). Raising government children: A history of foster care and the American welfare state. The University of North Carolina Press.

Shah, M. F., Liu, Q., Eddy, J. M., Barkan, S., Marshall, D., Mancuso, D., Lucenko, B., & Huber, A. (2017). Predicting homelessness among emerging adults aging out of foster care. American Journal of Community Psychology, 60(1-2), 33-43.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 – no. 26. Web.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020a). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2019 estimates as of June 23, 2020 – no.27. Web.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020b). Trends in foster care and adoption: FY 2010 – FY 2019. Web.

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