Early Takeaways from 50-State Look at Extended Foster Care

Juvenile Law Center (JLC), with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has built an excellent new resource for the field in its National Extended Foster Care Review, a website that breaks down each state’s foster care guarantees after the age of 18.

Fittingly, the site was launched on the 10th anniversary of Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. Fostering Connections, among other things, amended the Title IV-E foster care entitlement – the largest conduit of federal child welfare funds to states – to include matched reimbursement for any state that established a federally-approved extension of foster care until the age of 21.

The bill was born of research that put numbers to what most parents know through experience: that even teens with all the advantages in life are not ready to become fully independent adults at age 18. For foster youth, the outcomes for those “aging out” at 18 are grim, with high rates of homelessness, incarceration and unemployment.

The review found that 45 states currently offer at least some form of extended foster care to youth who opt to remain in the system as they move into adulthood. The only remaining states without any foster care guarantees after 18: Delaware, New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

Each state profile was built using a review of state statutes and regulations on Westlaw, buffered by analysis of official child welfare agency policies and handbooks. Each profile includes the following information:

  • If extended care is available, and if it is a federally-approved plan
  • Any eligibility criteria set for extended care
  • The age ceiling for extended care (for federally-matched programs, it is always 21)
  • Whether or not youth can re-enter extended care if they choose to leave at some point
  • If subsidies for an adoption or guardianship agreement are also extended past 18

This information can be accessed on a state-by-state basis, but users can use any of those data points to cross-reference by state.

Youth Services Insider emailed with the two JLC attorneys who oversaw the project, Jenny Pokempner and Lisa Swaminathan, about what jumped out early to them from their work. A few notes:

Life Skills

Swaminathan said one pleasant surprise as they reviewed the various statutes was how many states built in provisions about helping foster youth prepare for adulthood, as opposed to just lengthening the runway to it.

“For example, young people in the child welfare system typically don’t get experience managing their own money,” Swaminathan said. “Some states address this problem by allowing foster care maintenance payments to be paid directly to youth in extended care (rather than the family they live with or the placement provider).”

Another trend she liked: several states required “client-directed counsel” for court hearings, meaning older youth were provided lawyers that served their preferences as opposed to the “best interests” of youth.

Standout States

YSI asked if any states jumped out as potential models for extending foster care. Both attorneys agreed that the three most robust plans were in Nebraska, California and Ohio.

“These are the states with good legal frameworks,” Swaminathan said.

That list would be ideal if a foundation wanted to take on the notion of facilitating a site-visit learning experience for states that wanted to improve their older youth continuum. Those are three very different places, and you’d look for diverse examples to pair similarly-situated states.

It’s worth noting, though, that the review is limited to stated policy – JLC did not get into the impact and evaluation level for these profiles.

“We did not assess in our research what is actually happening on the ground—if youth are choosing to remain in care, if they feel engaged in the system after age 18, if the system and the supports are actually meeting their needs,” Swaminathan said. “Inclusive laws and policies are only one part of supporting older youth in the system.”

Still Wariness on Federal Involvement

There are 26 states that draw federal IV-E reimbursement for their extended care program. That means 19 states choose to pass on the offer to offload half the cost of extension on the feds.

extended foster care
Lisa Swaminathan, Juvenile Law Center: Nebraska, California and Ohio have standout legal frameworks for extended foster care.

After Fostering Connections became law, there was a lull for about five years during which only a handful of states opted into the extended care plan. But in the next five years, the number shot up, with Ohio becoming the most recent state to pass a plan.

So what gives, why the hesitation by so many states a decade later?

Pokempner said in some cases, states preferred a more limited scope than the federal approval process allows for. For instance, a state that wished to extend care only to 19 or 20 could not be approved for IV-E funds because a federal plan must extend to 21.

“IV-E has a lot of requirements and some states feel the cost of compliance outweighs the benefits of reimbursement,” she said. “Some states feel they have more flexibility if they do not have to meet these requirements.”

But she also thinks that at least some states base their aversion to opting in on “misunderstandings about IV-E.” The two attorneys plan to publish a brief about maximizing IV-E funds for extended care that Pokempner said she hopes will “clarify things and re-invigorate the conversation.”

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1094 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.