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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.

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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.

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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.”