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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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• 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

Some 30,000 youths age out of America's foster-care system each year, and in recent years, more attention has been given to their needs and to efforts to provide support. The 1999 Chafee Act doubled federal funding to support their transition to adulthood and expanded the range of services for which the funds could be used. And the Fostering Connections to Success Act, passed in 2008, offers incentives for states to extend foster care through age 21 – though that may be a tough sell to states facing dire fiscal crises.

This study found differences among youths who were allowed to stay in the system until 21 and those who had to leave at 18, though the differences were smaller than they expected and in some cases disappeared by the time the youths turned 24.

“To me, this says they need families that continue to provide that ongoing emotional connection,” says Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, which works with youths aging out of the foster-care system. “We don’t cut our kids off at 21 any more than we cut them off at 18…. It underscores the need for us to help these kids connect with their families before they leave foster care.”

That would require a substantial shift, Mr. Stangler acknowledges, since the state took the kids away from those families. But in many cases, it can make a real difference, he says.

Courtney also hopes this study helps officials realize the challenges faced by many in foster care. For instance, he notes that about 20 percent of young women in foster care have a child by age 17, and half do by age 21. Yet the Fostering Connections to Success Act makes almost no mention of parenting, and requires people to be working or in school to benefit, but doesn’t offer child-care support. “We need to be targeting this population,” he says.

Spend more now, less later?

While such support can be expensive, Courtney and others note that it can be even more expensive to not pay for it, if youths end up on welfare or in the criminal justice system.

“It’s a population in need, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a population with worse outcomes, but from a policy perspective, these are big-bang-for-the-buck kids,” says Stangler.

Tarkiyah Melton, a former foster youth in Atlanta who did manage to make it – she now holds a steady job, got a college degree, regained custody of the daughter she had when she was 18, and recently purchased her first house with the help of a savings program that the Jim Casey Initiative runs – says leaving foster care was tough. She was homeless at times and had to relinquish custody of her daughter to get financial support in school.

“It was a huge shift,” Ms. Melton says, noting that most of her peers in the foster system didn’t do so well. “But I’m a forward-thinking person.”

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