Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #4: Universal Foster Care to Age 21

Alison Myers, 21, an undergraduate student at Illinois State University

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 10 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Alison Myers, 21, an undergraduate student at Illinois State University.

The Proposal

Myers is proposing to require states to extend their foster care systems to age 21, and offer IV-E funding for states that extended it to age 23. This dramatically expands upon the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which offers states the option of extending care to 21 with federal support through the Title IV-E foster care entitlement.

More than half of states have extended care to age 21 under this option since Fostering Connections became law in 2008.

As part of this expansion, she would streamline the planning for older youth to include transition plans and qualification for extended care. Myers would call this an “Individualized Advancement Plan.”

The Argument

Myers draws on the research of Mark Courtney and others to highlight two arguments. First: that research has shown extended foster care connects to positive outcomes when compared with youth aging out at 18.

Second: The transition planning process is, at best, erratic in quality. Myers cites figures that nearly one-third of foster youth aren’t even aware of their transition plan, and that 41 percent of youth report that they weren’t involved in developing their plan.

In Their Own Words

“While I was lucky enough to have support from nonprofits and adults who took interest in me during my transition to adulthood, others, like my sister, who has struggled with addiction since we entered foster care in 2011, do not receive the same support.

Tools for Transformation, the most recent set of policy proposals from the Foster Youth Internship Program

What we both needed were individualized plans that focused on our own personal growth, such as going to therapy, attending rehabilitation services, or pursuing a college degree, to more meaningfully prepare us for our future goals and life outside of the foster care system.”

The Chronicle’s Take

On mandating foster care to 21: The federal government couldn’t truly “require” states to do so. The only real path would be to make it super expensive NOT to extend care to that age; for example, by passing a law that withheld Title IV-E reimbursement to any state that did not offer foster care through 21.

The 21-year-old bright line is not without precedent, of course. Under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which was passed in 1984, states can set their drinking age below 21, but they’d lose 8 percent of their federal allocation for highway construction and maintenance, one of the biggest blocks of money redistributed to states.

That won’t happen with foster care extension. But the other elements of Myers proposals are viable and worthy of discussion.

The feds could easily offer a slate of demonstration grants to some small group of states that have extended care to 21 to test the impact of raising that age to 23. Evaluating outcomes there compared to the “until 21” states would give some indication as to whether the runway to adulthood might need to be lengthened.

And for states that expand past 18, it makes sense that the transition plan would be linked to any intention on their end to remain in foster care. Individualizing those transitions to older youth care – as opposed to having the same federal standards for every youth in the country – is the right thing to do.

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