Every year, more than 20,000 young adults age out of the foster care system. They are between the ages of 18 and 21, some having chosen to voluntarily remain in care after 18. Their transition from the child welfare system to adulthood is often difficult as they tackle education, employment, housing, relationships and, simply, next steps.
Easing that transition often falls to social workers and social work organizations. It is a task these professionals do not and should not take lightly. After all, says Judith Schagrin, LCSW-C, a public policy analyst in Baltimore, “These are our children.”
Mark E. Courtney, PhD, Samuel Deutsch Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice and Co-Director of the Transition-Age Youth Research and Evaluation Hub at the University of California Berkeley, agrees. “Once we assume legal custody and we care for them for some period of time—and for a lot of these young people, most of them have been there for a while, years—we say we’re going to do a good job raising you, we have an obligation to follow through on that.”
As important as this transition and the young adults going through it are, there is still much room for improvement. Young adults facing a cutoff of services at 18 or 21, if not a bit older, depending on the service, can lack the tools and the network needed to progress forward independently.
The young adults who age out of the foster care system vary in terms of demographics, just as all youth in foster care do. There are certain trends, however. Much like across all age ranges, transition age youth of color (those ages 14-21) are disproportionately represented in the system. In 2018 in Pennsylvania, for example, where the general population is 71 percent white, 43 percent of transition age youth in care were African American. Only 38 percent were white, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“Black and Brown youth have been overrepresented in child welfare to begin with,” says Darcey H. Merritt, PhD, MSW, professor at the University of Chicago, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. “This trend of disparities and outcomes carries across through their time spent in care and as they age out. It’s particularly difficult for older kids. They have a harder time and poorer outcomes.”
Many of the older youth in foster care also struggle with mental health and behavioral issues. Studies have found that youth in foster care at age 17 and 18 are two to four times more likely to suffer from a mental health disorder compared with their counterparts not in foster care.
“Kids who enter (care) as adolescents typically enter because they have pretty significant behavioral and emotional problems or they’ve been subjected to really pretty extreme forms of physical or sexual abuse,” says Courtney. “Neglect of teenagers is tolerated in this country. You get to be 13 or 14, the fact that mom is leaving you alone unsupervised or mom or dad are not able to supervise you—oh well! You can stay there. You’re safe. If you’re entering in later adolescence, you generally have a pretty serious row to hoe.”
When young people leave foster care, the statistics indicate that they face a great deal of challenges. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation states that “One in five report experiencing homelessness between ages 17 and 19, and over one in four (29%) report being homeless from 19 to 21.” There also are high rates of incarceration, early parenthood and unemployment. Additionally, only 3% to 4% of youth in foster care earn a four-year degree, and just 2% to 6% earn a two-year degree.
But the statistics don’t tell the whole story, and Schagrin cautions against allowing numbers to overshadow the uniqueness of each individual. “My impression is many of our foster kids go on to lead humble lives like the rest of us. But somehow we expect them to become famous. We either talk about them being homeless or a gymnast or an actress. We never really think about the rest of them. It negatively stereotypes foster youth,” she says.
Sarah Wasch, MSW, associate director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research, adds, “Unfortunately, the field has taken to a deficit mindset when discussing this population. The reality is the data on youth who age out of foster care is not particularly promising or inspiring, and yet, there have been shown to be many mitigators that can increase the likelihood that a young person who has experienced foster care [will succeed].”
Those mitigators, on a macro level, include policy. For example, The Fostering Transitions to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 made extended foster care —care until age 21—possible by offering funding to states who chose to extend. As of 2022, 48 states allow youth in care at age 18 to remain, most commonly to age 21. Thirty-three states allow a young person who leaves care at age 18 to request a resumption up until their 21st birthday.
“What the child welfare system does in extended care, when it’s doing it right, is it treats the young people as young people who have a right to your help, says Courtney, emphasizing that by becoming the substitute parent, the government takes on that responsibility for young people in care.
If a young person extends care, they must meet certain requirements depending on the state, such as number of hours worked per month and/or enrollment in a secondary or postsecondary educational program. The Affordable Care Act (2010) also impacted young adults aging out of care, as it allows them to remain on Medicaid until age 26 if their state opts in—a rule similar to the one that allows parents to keep their adult children on their insurance until the same age.
On a more individual level, the expectation for young people aging out of care is that those surrounding them – their social workers and other professionals – will help prepare them. Of course, that’s not always the case. “These kids experience multiple movements in placement,” says Merritt. “[They are] not able to make meaningful relationships and form stable supports. When they get out, they’re just kind of thrown out without secure supports and normalcy, and they don’t have the life skills to navigate even daily tasks like grocery shopping.”
When preparation does happen or is offered, it should start well before the young person’s 18th birthday. Courtney explains that young adults should have transition plan meetings, but, he says “I know that not all those transitional independent living plans happen.”
Even when they do, how efficacious are they? “We can make as many plans as we want, but some of the many policies and documents we have passed [or created] are a substitute for good practice and have diverted from the relationship because it adds to the paperwork,” says Schagrin.
“There is no paperwork or document or checklist that substitutes for a meaningful casework relationship. What I mean by that is usually when kids are aging out it means they have a frayed relationship with family, so it’s up to the caseworker to be that dependable, resourceful grown up who is available,” she describes.
In addition to transition plans, young adults in care are offered independent living (IL) programming. This gives them the opportunity to attend life skills classes where they may be taught about budgeting, landlord interactions and more. However, both Courtney and Schagrin note that such information isn’t always useful at the time it is offered. IL services can begin as early as age 14. At that time, learning many of the offered skills is largely theoretical and will not have the impact it would if given later. However, says Schagrin, those classes do at least expose youth to the terminology, giving them a foundation for future experiences.
As they age out, young adults in care need a variety of resources that extend beyond the preparatory ones offered. Their needs run the gamut, typically centering on education, employment and housing. And often, the resources exist. For example, several states have education waivers, allowing young adults who have aged out of foster care to attend a state school or any school within their state free of tuition, depending on the state. In Pennsylvania, colleges and universities should also have points of contact for young people in foster care, so that students know they have someone they can go to for informed support. Wasch adds that approximately 20 schools in Pennsylvania have programs specifically designed to help youth with experience in foster care stay in school and graduate.
In terms of housing and employment, many different programs exist, again depending on location, age and circumstance. However, it remains challenging for young adults to access these resources. A part of that reason is awareness.
Wasch notes that on more than one occasion, she has been having a conversation with a caseworker and it is through that discussion they learn about Pennsylvania’s tuition waiver, which went into effect in 2020. If caseworkers don’t know, how then would a young person?
Rachel Ludeke, PhD, LMSW, postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Family and Community Medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, notes that individuals often discover resources when it’s too late for them to be used. “People come out with these new programs, and they don’t tell anybody. You find out about programs you could have been eligible for but now you’re too old. The group that I’m working with now are between 25 and 30. Most of these programs only go until age 24. You don’t have a way to call back those years.”
One of the keys to overcoming this lack of awareness is relationships. Young adults aging out of foster care need strong supports and connections to individuals, whether they are caseworkers, other professionals, friends or even family.
“The greatest needs are relationship and connection,” says Maddy Day, owner and senior consultant of Maddy Day LLC & Associates. “It’s the hardest thing for us and the system to give them. The system is not set up to support healthy ongoing relationships and yet for any young person to thrive [they need relationships],” she says, noting that “so much of our culture relies on relationships to help us navigate systems.”
That’s not to say that young people aging out of foster care lack any connections. Ludeke studied this population recently and found that while many in the study had a support network, it commonly comprised peers—“mainly friends who are the same age as the young person who aged out or is about to age out,” Ludeke explains. “There was a benefit [in this] in terms of getting emotional and social support. You can go to that person when you have concerns or you want to share good news. It wasn’t so great about wanting to make decisions about education and employment, because your friends are in the same boat as you.”
Relationships outside of peer-to-peer connections—though those are powerful—can enable young adults aging out of foster care to become aware of and access the resources that are available. They also can help the young adults feel empowered to find their own voice as they navigate the world. For example, Ludeke recalls a program in New York that works with young adults to create plays. It teaches them how to share their story in a way that feels safe and is entirely their choice.
Giving them choice, says Day, is an important part of the relationships built, as it reminds the young person they are in control of their own life and can take the next steps they deem necessary—while also bolstering them to lean on the support available.
Social Work Role
The relationships young adults build in foster care and as they age out may come from a variety of individuals in all professions, but most likely will include social workers—whether a caseworker, independent living specialist or housing counselor. This is ideal, as this is an area where social workers can truly shine, given the opportunity, resources, time and desire to foster these relationships.
“I would love to see more social workers approach the relationship-building as one of the top priorities when meeting with a young person. Most of the people in care have had a string of social workers come in and out of their lives to the point of why would they even try to make a connection?” says Ludeke. “But even small gestures of trying to get to know the person, knowing their hobbies, their triggers—building that type of relationship is just as important.”
Day emphasizes that knowing how to build strong relationships with young people aging out of foster care takes practice for social workers. “I spent a lot of time learning from folks and learning from young people,” she says. “I think that we are given a set of skills through our training [as social workers] that allow us to be primed to think from a person-centered lens, but there are additional skills and training that are needed.”
With that learning and experience, the relationships social workers build becomes even more impactful over time. Day describes these relationships as “seeding the garden of possibility. It’s helping them see that life is so much more than just this moment, those statistics,” she says, referencing the data on outcomes for youth aging out of care. “That’s not the whole story. Those statistics are often without context, without names or faces. That’s not a life sentence. It’s a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be predetermined that way.”
Such strong relationships will help the young people, as well as the social workers, better use resources while fighting for more. And in doing so, social workers will help the young people they serve take their next steps and to see what’s possible.
“We don’t want young people in foster care to just know the world of foster care,” says Day. “We want them to know the whole world.”