The 22,400 children who turn 18 and age out of state foster care systems across the country annually without a permanent family face grim prospects: Within two years, about one in four wind up incarcerated, one in five become homeless, four in 10 drop out of high school and 71 percent become parents by age 21.
The results of a national survey commissioned by two local nonprofits and released Tuesday discovered gaps in the network of services available to help those youth in transition.
The research, conducted by the national nonprofit Child Trends at the request of the Children’s Home Society of Virginia and the Better Housing Coalition, found increasing numbers of youth entering foster care across the country and spotty support for them across Virginia.
“There hasn’t been a survey like this done in more than a decade,” said Nadine Marsh-Carter, CEO of the Children’s Home Society. “What this tells us is that we need to get kids adopted out of foster care and into permanent homes. If we can’t do that, we need greater consistency; we shouldn’t have a patchwork approach to serving these youth.”
Nationally, three in four voluntarily leave the foster care system before the maximum allowable age, often to worse outcomes than their peers. Those who do stay have needs that aren’t being met, particularly with keeping a roof over their heads.
“While many states offer support for youth aging out of foster care, this study shows that there is much room for improvement,” Elizabeth Jordan, director of policy communications and outreach at Child Trends, said in a release.
Researchers found that Virginia is one of only two states surveyed that provides support for youth in transition across six key areas including housing, but that those services are available only in certain parts of the state. Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 45 other states participated in the efforts, which yielded both a Virginia-centered and national report.
Virginia in 2015 had one of the highest percentages in the country of youth aging out of the state foster care system without permanency, according to a 2017 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That means about one in five youth in Virginia’s system turned 18 and was emancipated without being adopted, getting reunited with a parent or caretaker, going to live with other relatives or being assigned a legal guardian, according to the report.
Analysts stated that because Virginia has a low rate of entry in foster care — half the national average, at two out of every 1,000 children — that could suggest those who are entering the system come from more complex situations which are more difficult to resolve.
“There’s some truth to that,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Voices for Virginia’s Children who specializes in foster care and juvenile justice issues. “When you have a situation where more kids are being diverted before they enter care ... you’re going to be managing cases involving more serious abuse and neglect.”
Virginia lawmakers in 2016 recognized the need for additional supports and funded the Fostering Futures program, a federal initiative in place across a majority of states that provides extended transition to independence programs for foster care youth ages 18 to 21.
This followed the launch of the Possibilities Project, a partnership between the Children’s Home Society of Virginia and the Better Housing Coalition. The initiative launched in early 2016 and provides housing and support for 10 foster youth. Marsh-Carter hopes lessons learned there coupled with data gleaned from the survey will yield a best practices model.
“All our participants have housing, nearly all have jobs, three-quarters are enrolled in post-secondary education or have completed career training, and they all have access to mentors and health care services,” Marsh-Carter stated. “No single support makes the difference for aged-out foster youth. It’s the combination of consistent, quality services that move these young people toward independence.”
State support for foster youth in transition ranges from age 18 in two states to age 23 in Connecticut, according to the research.
Researchers determined the most critical factors for ensuring that youth exiting foster care succeed are the same as for any young adult flying the nest: post-secondary education; employment and career development; financial well-being; safe, stable and affordable housing; access and management of health and mental health care; and permanent relationships with supportive adults.
States self-reported varied successes across these priorities, with nine citing achievement in post-secondary education; 32 providing some mentoring opportunities for transition-age youth; 26 offering some form of matching savings; and 13 contracting with housing developers to guarantee a certain percent of units go to foster youth.
“We have to be committed to changing our policies to ensure children have a better chance of finding a permanent home before they age out,” Gilbreath said.
By ages 25 to 26, only 8 percent of former foster youth in Virginia have obtained a post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of young adults generally, according to the state report.
The Possibilities Project is launching a task force composed of subject matter experts who work in fields across the six key service areas identified in the report and charging the group with identifying changes that would improve outcomes for Virginia’s youth.
Among the group’s members are state Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington; Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent; Marsh-Carter; Harris; Gilbreath; and Chris Saxman, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates.