Raising the Age of Foster Care: Some Lessons from Early Expanding States

Twenty states have implemented an extension of foster care past the age of 18 since the 2008 passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which guaranteed federal reimbursement for approved versions of such extensions. Eighteen of those 20 plans have been approved so far.

It is an experiment certain to be marked by trial and error. Housing and engaging young adults – some with mental health issues or disabilities, others with children – is new territory for many child welfare agencies and their private partners.

The National Resource Center for Youth Development held a small web discussion on the subject, featuring child welfare officials in Indiana and Texas.

“It’s a new world for us,” said Larry Burgess, supervised independent living coordinator for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), speaking on a small web conference about expansion hosted by The National Resource Center for Youth Development.  “In a traditional model we’re used to 24-7 stuff. Now we might not know where a young person is at a lot of the day, and we’re trying to figure out how to do a program in that context.”

And that is the challenge: incorporating a hands-off model into the fabric of systems and agencies that operate under a mandate to keep close tabs on other children in their stead.

“The youth input we got was that foster care at age 18, 19, 20 should look nothing like foster care at age eight, nine or ten,” said Alishea Hawkins, assistant deputy director of services and outcomes for the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS), speaking on the same webinar.

When Texas solicited input from youths as it planned its expansion, Burgess said, a few themes popped up: “Freedom, no curfews, a ‘chance to fail’, and to develop supports without gatekeeper.”

If expansions work, the payoff in cost savings could be dramatic. Thirty-six percent of youths aging out of foster care experienced at least one homeless episode by age 26, according to Chapin Hall, Nearly two-thirds of youths who exit the foster care system into adulthood experience homelessness within 18 months of “aging out.” according to Chapin Hall, directing them into a pipeline of long-term safety net dependence.

Following are a few themes The Chronicle picked up on from the NRCYD webinar -and our extensive coverage of California’s expansion of foster care to age 21 – that policymakers and leaders in other states should be mindful of when and if they move toward expanding foster care.

What Placements to Allow

Texas is developing a system that offers residential programs an opportunity to serve older foster youths, and the state also sanctions apartments, residential programs, college dorms, shared housing and host homes.

Much of this will be accomplished working with three contracted providers: ACH Child and Family Services, Kids Harbor, Boysville.

Hawkins suggested that in Indiana, residential programs might eventually be in the mix, but not yet. By comparison, the legislation in California that included 18- to 21-year-olds strictly prohibits group situations as an option. The main options for older youth are:

Supervised Independent Living Placements (SILP): Youths find a place to live that caseworkers approve of.

Transitional Housing Program Plus-Foster Care (THPPFC): An offshoot of an existing California program that for years has funded providers who can provide independent housing and support services to youths.

Where the Money Goes

In Texas, the funds will be given to the providers in a per diem structure, with an expectation that they will provide youth will money for living expenses.

In California, youths in SILP placements receive payments directly, and need only check in once a month with a caseworker. Funds for THPPFC placements would go to the nonprofit providers in arrangements with county agencies.

Indiana DCS is working on an interesting way of handling payments to youths in college dorms. It is passing independent living funds through United Way of Central Indiana, which administers the federal Chafee Educational Training Vouchers, grants of up to $5,000 that are made to some foster youths who age out.

Hawkins said even if a youth did not receive an ETV grant for some reason, it’s possible to route the money to them through United Way.

Supervision

The direct support offered in the California SILP is in line with what was intended by the authors of the federal Fostering Connections legislation, according to Sean Hughes, a child welfare consultant who served as legislative assistant to Fostering Connections co-author Rep. Jim McDermott.

“The goal was to get it as close as possible to being directly to youths,” said Hughes.

One Oregon official we spoke with expressed wariness about California’s low-intensity involvement with SILP participants. Oregon has offered foster care for 18- to 21-year olds since the 1990s, including an independent living subsidy program similar to SILP. But participants must adhere to strict guidelines around work and school commitments, life skills classes, and financial management.

Use of the funds must be approved by caseworkers, and the worker can require the youths to pay the state back for expenditures deemed inappropriate, according to Rosemary Iavenditti, who coordinates independent living programs for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Without caseworker supervision, she said, “Young adults can get themselves in trouble very quickly.”

In Texas, Burgess describes something in between. The contracted providers are “expected to pass through some of that money to kids,” he said. DFPS expects between $300 and $400 each month “to make it to the youth for basic needs.”

And, he added, the per diem rates “factored in the young person having a cell phone.” This appears to be a middle ground of sorts, although assurances that the money is making its way to youths will depend on how closely DFPS checks on that.

Liability

Hawkins said Indiana made it mandatory for its older youth services contractors to co-sign the leases, meaning those providers were on the hook if a youth walked out on or was ejected from a housing arrangement.

“We are now re-thinking that,” she said, partly because it does not push the youth to take responsibility in any way for their circumstances.

“What are youth learning if there’s a co-signer” to bail them out? Hawkins asked.

Contracts for Services

Texas expects to rewrite its request for proposals (RFP) for its next solicitation of providers, Burgess said. Indiana’s RFP locked in a commitment from the providers for two years with a promise of funding for only one year, meaning it left the door open for significant changes if need be.

That is perhaps the lesson here: To account for the likelihood of changes in such a new endeavor.

Indiana actually used the occasion of expanding foster care to restructure how it did all independent living services. Beforehand, said Hawkins, the state contracted with 33 different IL providers to serve youths in 18 regions. Those providers were responsible for providing an array of services and assistance to youths.

DCS decided to go away from that model and contract with far fewer providers that could serve as a “general contractor” to make referrals for more specialized services and focus on housing assistance.

The first RFP under the newly named “Older Youth Services” program yielded six providers, although Hawkins indicated that they might need to add more to augment services in highly populated areas.

Case Management

Indiana’s over-18 foster youths will work with one of the state’s newly designated and trained “collaborative care case managers,” a group of caseworkers whose caseload will consist only of youths in the extended care arena.

The rationale? “We tried to take away decision-making between the young kids and the older ones,” Hawkins said. The fear is of a caseworker forced to prioritize their time between younger children and teenagers, a battle Hawkins suggests the little ones would surely win with frequency.

One thing Indiana will want to keep an eye on with this plan is burnout among the older youth caseworkers. The Connecticut Court Supported Services Division (CSSD) has worked toward a similar goal in its juvenile justice system with girls, designating and training certain probation officers to handle girl-only caseloads.

State officials are still hopeful that the girls-only probation will improve the system in the long haul, but in the short term it appears that the state did not train enough specialists.

CSSD recruited probation officers for the girl-only caseloads once, and trained only those officers, according to CSSD Juvenile Probation Director Julia O’Leary, speaking with The Chronicle last year. After years dealing with a pretty challenging group of girls, some of the officers wish to return to general assignment but cannot.

“We’ve sort of locked other people in, because we’ve given them so many resources, and in some cases, we don’t have another officer to take their place,” O’Leary added.

The fatigue factor was probably something CSSD should have seen coming. From a 2007 CSSD brief written by Selvaggi and Juvenile Probation Supervisor Amy Minoudis:

“Probation officers and practitioners continue to report that girls are more difficult to serve because of their very different pathways into, through and out of the court system,” the brief said. “Ask most probation officers and they will tell you, ‘I’ll take 10 boys for 1 girl.’”

Point being: Assuming that older youth specialists now will always want to be older youth specialists would be short-sighted.

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