Extend foster care to age 21

States should tap new federal funds to help youths 'aging out' at 18

Most parents would not throw their kids out on the street at age 18. Yet that is what happens to thousands of American foster children when they "age out" of most state systems. They're on their own, and often end up homeless, pregnant, or behind bars.

Last year, Congress and President Bush realized what many parents do: Just because young people – especially those raised in foster homes – reach a certain age, that doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to fly solo.

The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 provides $3 billion to states that extend such assistance as housing, vocational and college help, and counseling to foster youth who want support up until they turn 21. Now states need to put that law to use.

To qualify, "emancipated" foster kids must be enrolled in school or job training, or be working a minimum number of hours, or be unable to do any of those things because of a medical condition. They also have to want to participate in the program, which is voluntary.

California may well take advantage of the new federal law. Bipartisan support is building for legislation to tap the new matching federal funds. That lawmakers are considering this now is noteworthy, because the recession might convince some that the state can't afford this, even with federal help.

But it can't afford not to. Of California's 74,000 foster children, about 4,500 age out each year. A quarter of those are jailed within two years of foster emancipation and a fifth become homeless. More than half have dropped out of high school, and almost half are jobless.

A recent study by the University of Washington School of Social Work estimates that educational benefits alone would return $2.40 for every dollar spent in California on extending foster services to 21. Consider also the impact of fewer youths in jail or fewer teen pregnancies.

A recent multiyear study of foster youths in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin found just such benefits. Youths in Illinois (one of the handful of states which has extended support to 21) were 65 percent less likely to be arrested than those in Wisconsin and Iowa (which routinely discharge them when they turn 18). The Illinois youths were three times more likely to enroll in college. The likelihood of pregnancy decreased by more than a third.

Once again California has the opportunity to set an example for the nation by using the new federal law and thus help ease the life transition of the country's 26,000 youths who "age out" each year. This is not a large population, but these young people deserve support as much as their peers.

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