Three Better Ways to Support Foster Youth than Extending Care to 26

Ten years ago, I was George White, a 17-year-old high school student in foster care advocating for the extension of foster care to age 21 through AB 12.

Today, I introduce myself as 27-year-old Dr. Akin Abioye, a program manager at a community foundation, board chair of Peace4Kids, social scientist, a husband, and father of three amazing children. A long way away from where I was a decade ago.

Back in 2010, I argued in the LA Times “that when young adults stay in foster care until age 21, their outlook for education, housing stability and mental health dramatically improve. Those three additional years of support help keep these young people safe, in school, off the streets and out of jail.” I still believe this to be true.

But as a young adult with a career, several degrees, and a far more complex understanding of the nuances of public policy than I did at 17, I recognize something more powerful than more time, better and more comprehensive support. And while I have a great deal of admiration for the desire to extend foster care even further to provide a broader safety net for young people transitioning out of foster care, I would be derelict in my position as an expert with lived experiences in the system if I did not warn potential supporters of the recently introduced Senate Bill (SB) 912 of the potential carnage.

SB 912 would extend California’s optional foster care system for young adults through age 25. It was introduced by State Sen. Jim Beall (D), who authored the AB 12 law I championed years ago.

I too, thought a decade ago, if these young people just had more time, outcomes could be far different. As a father, I now know that allowing my kids more time to live with me would not alone change the trajectory of their lives. Instead, here I offer three things the state could do that would have a far greater impact than extending foster care to age 26.

Stop removing kids from their family of origin.

This seems both simple and lofty at the same time. But is it any loftier and more idealistic than the notion that the state could do a better job at raising my family than my mother? Imagine a system that provided intensive support for family in the form of 24/7 in-home support and case management, reserving removal for cases of abuse and other unavoidable parental absence? For me and my siblings who were in foster care, this would still have cost less than removal without a doubt.

Provide guaranteed admission to and full ride at all California State University and community college campuses.

If we want to have a conversation about access and support, let’s remove all barriers to college. Waive high stakes, low value tests, re-evaluate admission practices and provide a bar for admissions that is equitable. In an era where wealthy white students buy their way into elite colleges, let the state give access to those who have faced insurmountable obstacles to even graduate high school. Let’s consider pouring millions into primary and secondary education for youth in foster care. Give every youth in foster care a private tutor from the moment they enter care until they received an undergraduate degree.

Create a state funded career development program.

When I led the policy department at FosterClub, one thing I admired most was their ideal that people who experience foster care are the experts on their lives and should control the narrative of their lives at the very table where decisions are made. The state could lead this charge creating opportunities at a statewide level for these experts to engage in policy and systems change, while earning a living wage.

These are the opportunities we want for our own kids, but these are the opportunities we want for our own kids, but there are racialized undertones to how we solve the problems of foster care. The way public systems and policymakers respond to the needs of white communities is often much different than that of black and brown communities. SB 912 would never be the solution if the majority of the youth in the system were white – we would be doing the things I suggested above.

Before anyone jumps on the “foster care to 26” bandwagon and talk about what we want for our children, let’s stop and think for a minute. Do we want our children to languish in a system that was not designed to serve our children?

Foster care to 26 alone will not improve life outcomes. The unfortunate reality of growing up in foster care is you must grow up many years before you’re ready. So, instead of cheering for a disaster, let’s get experts (those with lived experience in foster) in a room and come up with a better solution than what the senator has offered.

[The views expressed in the article are mine alone and not those of my employers or associated organizations.]

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 Akin Abioye is the manager of youth justice at the Liberty Hill Foundation.

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