Aging Out of Foster Care: 18 and On Your Own

Turning 18 or 21 for your typical American means newfound independence. Whether it’s going off to college or having a first legal drink, most young adults eagerly await these milestone birthdays. But for more than 20,000 young adults in this country, turning 18 or 21, is not a celebratory event. Depending on the state in which they live, young adults in foster care “age out” of the system at either 18 or 21. Essentially, aging out is the process that occurs when youth must leave the foster care system because they were never adopted and are too old to stay in care.        

The statistics are devastating. By age 26, only three to four percent of youth who aged out of foster care earn a college degree. One in five of these youth will become homeless after turning 18. Only half will obtain employment by 24. Over 70 percent of female foster youth will become pregnant by 21, and one in four former foster youth will experience PTSD.

The problems associated with aging out of foster care also affect the communities these youth live in. A 2013 study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative showed that, “on average, for every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs like public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages to a community over that person’s lifetime. Do the math and you can conservatively estimate that this problem incurs almost $8 billion in social costs to the United States every year.”

The dire social and economic effects of the aging out process, whether we realize it or not, touch each one of us. The solution to this problem can be found through the efforts and resources provided by individuals and a host of institutions like families, churches, corporations, nonprofits, and the government. As is true for most public justice issues, there is a unique role for both the government and private and public institutions to play to ensure that aging-out youth have the chance to flourish.

Individuals and families can play a significant role in helping foster children by considering adopting older youth in the child welfare system. In 2015, there were 427,910 children in foster care. There are an estimated 350,000 Christian churches in the United States. If only one to two families from each of those churches fostered or adopted just one child, there would no more foster care system, and every abused and neglected child in the country would live with a family.

However, fostering and adopting is not the only way to help. Individuals can volunteer for mentoring programs for foster kids. One such program is the San Diego Foster Youth Mentor Program, which trains mentors to help foster youth navigate adulthood. Another option is volunteering to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA programs are located around the country and volunteers ensure that children in care do not get lost in the complicated legal and social services systems. This is especially important for youth in foster care who need to make sure they are receiving the benefits they are entitled to, like education vouchers for college, before and after they leave the system.

Corporations can donate financial resources to programs that help foster youth, but they can also offer internships and training programs for these youth. Businesses can help young adults in foster care acquire skills and experiences that could lead to full-time employment.

Nonprofits also play a key role in helping foster youth enter adulthood. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, mentioned earlier, does a variety of things to help youth in the foster care system. It advocates for policies that help young adults transition out of care, provides financial training and literacy, and sponsors neuroscience research to ensure programs developed for foster youth are effective. Another initiative, Covenant House, provides housing and government advocacy for homeless foster youth.

Several universities have started programs specifically for foster youth. For the few young adults that leave foster care and make it to college, significant challenges await them. Often they cannot afford textbooks, have no place to go over holiday breaks when the school closes, and find the college system difficult to navigate. The California State University system provides holistic services to youth who have left foster care and entered college. The services help “current or former foster youth with admissions, financial aid, housing, orientation, advisement, counseling, life skills, employment and career planning to ensure their success through graduation.” For example, foster children in Texas are entitled to a tuition waiver that covers their college education. 

Finally, the government, while it cannot replace a family, plays a critical role in helping foster youth. The court system is often a scary place for kids in foster care, but judges can make a crucial difference in the lives of foster youth. In Harris County, where Houston, Texas, is located, judges started a special Child Protective Services (“CPS”) court for foster kids. One judge in Harris County started a class called Preparation for Adult Living. Every few months, youth in the foster care system join the judge, with pizza and soda, to learn critical skills for adulthood.

The only way to combat the seemingly insurmountable problems foster youth face as they leave the child welfare system is a combination of programs and social support offered by families, churches, nonprofits, and the government. Only with an integrated approach can foster children get the support they need to transition to adulthood successfully.

At his last court hearing before aging out of foster care, Noel Anaya, who spent 20 years in the system, read a letter to the court. His words were poignant and worthy of repeating:           

Walking into court for my very last time as a foster youth, I feel like I'm getting a divorce from a system that I've been in a relationship with almost my entire life. It's bittersweet because I'm losing guaranteed stipends for food and housing, as well as access to my social workers and my lawyer. But on the other hand, I'm relieved to finally get away from a system that ultimately failed me on its biggest promise. That one day it would find me a family who would love me.

Children who enter foster care have often been abused and/or neglected, and failed by the parents who were supposed to care for them. Unfortunately, for many of the youth leaving foster care, they have been failed twice—by their biological families and by the child welfare system that was also supposed to care for them. These kids, who have often languished in the foster care system for years, deserve better. Each of us has a role to play to ensure these youth do not have to experience failure again and again as they exit the child welfare system.

-Cristina Squiers graduated from SMU Dedman School of Law, where she served as Editor-in-chief of the SMU Law Review. She received a bachelor's degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Values and Public Life from Princeton University. Between college and law school, Cristina completed a fellowship in Philadelphia to start a mentoring program for those aging out of foster care. She currently works at an international law firm as a litigation associate.