In the mid-2000s, it had already become clear in the field of child welfare that relatives should be a priority option when it comes to removing youth from their home. But most states lacked a robust option for supporting kin who could, with a little help, be the answer on permanency.
Research had also established that far too many teens were aging out of foster care at 18, unsupported and alone, facing the threat of homelessness and instability. But few states offered much more than some college tuition assistance after a child left their system.
Into this paradigm came Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008. With that signature came two new promises from the federal government: money to keep more foster children with relatives, and lengthening the runway for youth aging out of foster care.
A decade later, the majority of states have taken Congress up on these offers. Three dozen states have a federally approved guardianship assistance plan to increase permanent placements with kin, and nearly every state permits some extension of foster care beyond age 18.
Have these changes improved the child welfare system? Research suggests work remains to be done to both measure, and strengthen, the impact of the new opportunities funded by Fostering Connections. The law’s supporters say it will take new data promised by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to meaningfully track the law’s success.
Two New Options
Fostering Connections provided two optional extensions to Title IV-E of the Social Security Act — the federal entitlement that reimburses states for some costs related to placements in foster care and assistance to adoptive families. First, the federal government began to share the cost with states on creating kinship guardianship assistance programs (GAP), an idea that took root in state experiments more than a decade prior. Illinois and Maryland were among the first states to test the idea of paying relatives to care for children who would otherwise be placed with foster parents — oftentimes strangers.
Under GAP, relatives receive a subsidy payment to care for a youth removed from their home for more than six months. It is not unlike the federal adoption subsidy program, a part of the IV-E entitlement since 1980.
Evaluations of those experiments showed that offering a guardianship option for relatives led to more children achieving a permanent home faster. Fostering Connections made federal support for such programs an option for every state.
Growing the support system for relatives was a driving motivation behind Fostering Connections on Capitol Hill.
“It was a watershed time in terms of bringing importance to those placements,” said MaryLee Allen, director of child welfare and mental health at the Children’s Defense Fund. Allen played a key role in helping develop and move the law through Congress.
Sonja Nesbit, then a staffer for the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, recalls an article Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) found in an Iowa newspaper about relatives struggling to support youth. She also remembers that a number of key members of Congress on the House Ways and Means Committee were stirred by a foster youth who testified that he ended up in the system, even though his grandmother was willing to take him in.
“We wanted to move beyond the false narrative of, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’” said Nesbit, who would later join the Obama administration at HHS and is now on the government affairs team at law firm Arent Fox. “If more kids stay connected with their families, we’re reducing trauma. So let’s … keep them with someone who they know and care for.”
Second, it gave states the option of matching federal funds to pay for an extension of foster care past 18. Federally funded plans for extended care would have to run through age 21 and permit youth to re-enter care if they initially chose to age out. At the same time, youth would be required to pursue higher education, job training or work.
The provision was in part driven by the findings of a longitudinal study of the outcomes for older foster youth conducted by Chapin Hall, a research center at the University of Chicago. The “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth” followed foster youth from Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin into their early adult years.
The research made the obvious empirical: Youth thrust into adulthood without any permanent place to call home fare poorly when it comes to academics and employment, and are disproportionately involved in the justice system and reliant on public benefits.
In the years immediately following Fostering Connections, very few states were willing to take the federal government up on its offer to share the cost of extending foster care or establishing GAPs. The law was passed as the global economy was in meltdown, and right before the inauguration of a new president.
The first year of Fostering Connections, 2009, saw just a handful of state GAP plans approved, and no approved foster care extensions. In 2010, 11 states had been approved for GAP and five states had applied (but were not approved for) extended foster care.
“The delays were frustrating,” Nesbit said. “We passed the holy Mecca of all laws, we’re getting thanks from all over, and nobody took it up. What the hell?”
Ten years later, there are currently 36 states and 11 tribes with GAP programs in place. Meanwhile, all but three states have some form of extended foster care. Of those, 26 have plans that have met approval for federal matching, which means they run until age 21 and allow youth to return to care even if they first choose to emancipate.
The path of uptake on Fostering Connections could prove to be a “teaching moment” for implementers of the Family First Prevention Services Act, the most recent federal revision of Title IV-E, Nesbit said.
“I do have excitement about the prospects of Family First,” she said. “But you’re already hearing, ‘Yeah great, but nobody is going to do X, Y and Z because they don’t have the money.”‘
While Fostering Connections has unmistakably prompted nationwide commitment to extended foster care and kinship assistance, there has yet to be any national assessment of what impact those extensions have had. The Midwest Evaluation compared the experiences of youth aging out at 18 from Iowa and Wisconsin to youth aging out at 21 in Illinois. It found that by age 23, youth in the extended care program were just as prone to homelessness as their cohorts who aged out at 18.
Mark Courtney, who led the Midwest Study team, recently concluded a study of youth in extended care in California, which was an early adopter of the extended care provision and had already been operating a state guardianship assistance program when Fostering Connections passed. In an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change, he noted that the low number of older foster youth who were closing in on a degree, or had obtained employment, were both “cause for concern.”
While nearly every state has some level of extended care now, it is unclear how many youth are actually choosing to remain after they turn 18. A recent report on older foster youth found that of the 171,000 youth in care between age 14 and 21, just 22 percent of that population is 18 or older.
“That’s a big point of concern for us,” said Leslie Gross, director of Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, which produced the report. “Since 2011, we have been on a big campaign” to get youth into extended care.
The same goes for guardianship assistance. While 36 states have been approved for GAP programs, the actual use of them is highly concentrated into the most populous states. There were nearly 25,000 active IV-E guardianships in 2016, the seventh year of the program, according to a recent federal evaluation. Of those, 75 percent were in just six states: California, Texas, Illinois, Oregon, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Those states were home to about 51 percent of all foster children and youth at the time of the evaluation.
If the path of federal adoption subsidies is any indicator, the uptake of GAP will increase over time. Seven years after adoption subsidies became law, there were about 28,000 families receiving them, a similar number to GAP in year seven.
That number would skyrocket over the next two decades. By 2015, the average monthly total of children with adoption assistance subsidies had reached 440,000.
Allen of Children’s Defense Fund said one problem in tracking the changes made by Fostering Connections is that indicators to track its key provisions have yet to be absorbed into the federal data collection process on child welfare. Each state provides information through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which has not been updated in well over a decade.
“AFCARS has never incorporated any of the data elements” from Fostering Connections, said Allen. “If you don’t have data, it’s hard to do any monitoring, and the lack of monitoring hurts. We can’t show what’s working.”
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