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Crime, unemployment, homelessness dog ex-foster care youths

A new study of youths who aged out of the foster care system shows 60 percent of the men had been convicted of a crime and 75 percent of the women had received public assistance. Unemployment and homelessness are high, indicating more support is needed, the study finds.

By Staff writer / April 7, 2010

Tasha Collett, 21, of Des Moines, Iowa, takes notes during class at Mercy College of Health Sciences on Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa. Collett spent most of her teen years shuffling between many different foster families. By the time she aged out of the Iowa system at age 18, she ended up living in homeless shelters, on and off. But Collett, managed to land an apartment and a part-time job at a drug store. She's also studying to become a registered nurse.

Conrad Schmidt/AP

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The vast majority of young people who age out of the foster-care system struggle to find housing and jobs and to complete their education, according to a new study released Wednesday, which tracked hundreds of foster-care youths from age 17 and 18 through age 23 or 24.

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Among some of the more sobering findings:

• Only 6 percent of those surveyed had finished a two- or four-year college degree by age 24, and nearly one-quarter did not have a high school diploma or GED.

• Nearly 60 percent of the young men had been convicted of a crime.

• Only 48 percent were working, compared with 72 percent of their peers who hadn’t been in foster care. For those working, the median income annual was just $8,000.

• Nearly 40 percent had been homeless or had “couch-surfed” since leaving foster care, and three-quarters of the young women had received public assistance in the last year.

“We took these young people away from their families because we said we as a society can do a better job parenting them,” says Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and an author of the study. “If you look at the average outcomes, I don’t think any parent would be happy with those outcomes.”

Young parents, in particular, are struggling

In this study, which tracked foster kids from Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin over six years, Professor Courtney paid a lot of attention to various subgroups.

“Some of the groups are doing OK, just having to make transitions earlier than they might have liked,” he says.

But he points to other groups – such as young parents – that are struggling. “They’re raising kids and doing it in really difficult circumstances,” Courtney says. Then there’s the one-fifth of the population that he calls “troubled and troubling” – those who have had run-ins with the law, have serious mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and will likely need significant support to turn their lives around.

Foster-care youths have always been among the most vulnerable and at-risk populations, and most have few supports once they age out of the system – which occurs in most states at age 18, though a handful, including Illinois, allow some young people to remain in the foster-care system until 21 if they meet certain conditions.

Efforts to provide more support

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