A California senator introduced groundbreaking legislation this week to extend the state’s foster care system through age 25 – a bill that acknowledges the continued failure to prepare young people severed from families for life on their own.
The early-stage Senate Bill 912 has few details yet available, and no price tag. But its lofty aim would make California the first state to expand such support and services to young adults well beyond the current age limit of 21.
“We ought to have a full-service support system and extend the age,” Beall said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “I know everyone’s going to criticize that because it’s going to cost money, but this is a group that needs services.”
For far too long, when they turned 18, foster youth who had not been reunited with relatives or adopted were “emancipated” into lives of poverty, homelessness and incarceration. A decade ago, calling it the state’s “moral obligation,” Beall co-authored legislation in California that drew on federal funds to help those young people through age 21 – the landmark Assembly Bill 12.
California was among the first states to extend foster care beyond 18 after President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, legislation which offered federal matching funds for such efforts.
Today, 49 states offer some form of extended foster care – Oklahoma is the only state where the ceiling remains at 18. And since 2018, 18 states have extended some federal foster care housing support until age 23.
In California, a study released last year by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that youth who remain in extended foster care have more savings and are more educated than their peers who exit at 18. Other studies show lifetime earnings increasing by as much as $500,000 for those with a college degree.
But there are also strong indicators that even with the additional support, those who grew up in foster care are still struggling. One-third of young adults raised by the system met the federal standards for being “food insecure” after exiting extended care, Chapin Hall found. Close to half had experienced economic hardship in the past year so severe they were evicted and could not pay utility bills, and almost one-quarter reported having experienced homelessness.
“The humane thing to do is to honor that young people who’ve experienced foster care need the same love and support that all young people need at this time,” said Haydée Cuza, executive director of the California Youth Connection, a prominent advocacy group. “Strategically, we should be advocating for 26.”
Beall has not yet released details on what services and supports would be offered through age 25 under his bill. The placeholder language available now suggests a straightforward extension of all benefits that are now currently offered through age 21 – benefits that include cash stipends, housing support, tuition help and social worker assignments.
There were 7,358 18- to 20-year-olds enrolled in California’s extended foster as of October, according to state data. Recent state spending reports show that the California Department of Social Services has spent more than $100 million each year on AB 12 – and including 21- to 25-year-olds could considerably increase those expenditures.
The expansion to 21 was done with matching federal dollars from Title IV-E, a Medicaid-like entitlement that reimburses states for certain child welfare costs. But IV-E is capped at age 21, meaning that – without another funding stream – the state and counties would have to pay for most or all of Beall’s proposed expansion.
While Beall’s legislation will be closely watched, youth advocates did not want to comment publicly, given that there are few specifics so far. But several expressed concern about extending care while the existing system is underfunded, and others worried about the practicality of having people in their mid-20s as wards of the state.
Mark Courtney, the University of Chicago researcher whose long-term surveys of young adults in foster care have driven much of the policy and practice nationwide, said the data show there are still profound needs at age 21.
“Should we stop providing help at 21? The answer is no,” Courtney said. “But what that support should look like is complicated.”
Courtney said if done properly, his research has shown great promise.
“If you give them time, they end up doing a lot of the things that young people from more privileged backgrounds do – it’s just taking them longer.”
Beall, who is in his last legislative year due to term limits, acknowledged the significant price tag for such an expansion, but said the consequences of failing to offer more support to these young adults is far greater.
“The prisons are now full of former foster youth and we’re spending tens of billions of dollars on that,” Beall said. Reducing that cost “would be a benefit to society – and I think most of the public would support that.”
Dontae Lartigue, who aged out of foster care at 18 in Santa Clara County, said the government should support former foster youth through at least the age of 24, which is how long he expects to provide for his children.
“They are an upper-middle class parent and they should act as such,” said Lartigue, who is the CEO of Razing the Bar, a San Jose nonprofit that matches foster youth with housing and a personal relationship with a mentor. “It’s their responsibility because they uprooted us in the first place. They took us from our homes, they assumed responsibility for who we are and what we’re going to be.”
The Chronicle will explore California’s extended foster care system in an upcoming series of stories.
Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.