California Extended Foster Care to 21. Was It Enough?

extended foster care
Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

Just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and businesses and isolated millions of people in their homes, a California senator introduced groundbreaking legislation to reimagine how the state supports some of its most vulnerable, yet hopeful, residents: Young adults raised in foster care. 

What state Sen. Jim Beall proposed in Senate Bill 912 was unprecedented. The bill would provide full-service foster care benefits through age 25 — five years beyond the current cutoff. The package of housing supports and monthly payments would give young people, beset by childhood trauma and too often failed by multiple government systems, a better chance in their formative early adult years.

But as state lawmakers scrambled to respond to the current public health and resulting economic crisis, a $54 billion budget deficit all but gutted the San Jose Democrat’s ambitious legislation. It has since been repurposed as a one-year measure to take effect only when California experiences a state of emergency, and only for a year, not the five years originally envisioned.

During the global pandemic, California; Washington, D.C; and ten other states have enacted temporary extensions of foster care to ensure young adults aren’t cut off from basic needs benefits, as work, study and much of daily life remains virtually paralyzed. Nationally, newly proposed legislation would temporarily remove the age limit on federal foster care funding to support these efforts.  

The desperate worries about youth aging out of foster care calls into question whether America’s present plan to prepare them is enough. More than a decade ago, the federal government backed state expansion of foster care until age 21, and since then, nearly every state has moved in that direction. But a close examination of one of those states, California, finds significant gaps and struggles for young adults trying to remain in the state’s safety net while preparing for independence.

California leads the way

Beall would have loved to secure the benefits of care for foster youth through age 25 in his final term. A decade ago, he co-authored the landmark Assembly Bill 12. That law created California’s original extended foster care program, serving 18- to 21-year-olds. 

California was among the first states to provide foster care benefits to young adults in an effort to mitigate the all-too-common realities of teens aging out of the system into lives of poverty, homelessness and incarceration. Supported by 2008 legislation that provides matching federal funds for such efforts, today, every state except Oklahoma offers some form of extended foster care, with most capped at age 21. 

AB 12, the California Fostering Connections Act of 2010, listed 113 organizations as bill supporters, with no opposition. Although the state had been slammed by a recession and faced a $40 billion deficit, AB 12 was signed by then-Republican governor, bodybuilder and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though costs in the nation’s most populous state were projected as: “Unknown; likely millions. Low tens of millions.”

The law extending foster care to age 21 is now so widely regarded, its formal name is embedded in the child welfare vernacular. Young people here say they are “in AB 12,” or “couldn’t get into AB 12.” Social workers are assigned to AB 12 caseloads, and the courts staff up AB 12 calendars.

But given the weighty burden of childhood trauma and the ongoing difficulty of surviving in this high-cost state, Beall says those three additional years are not enough. Too many are still struggling to survive, and ending up in miserable circumstances. Under Obamacare, health insurance is granted until age 26 for former foster youth, and extended foster care should be as well, Beall said.

extended foster care
Joseph Jones, 23, in downtown Oakland, California. Photo: Max Whittaker

Joseph Jones, an East Bay resident who aged out of foster care when he was 21, said his peers survive one “traumatizing situation” after another and face a lifetime of recovery. Often alone in the world, they are not always ready at age 21 to tackle all that independence requires.

As a young child, the system moved him first among foster and group homes, and then to residential programs in far-flung states. One month before his 21st birthday, Jones lost his housing, and he soon found himself back in jail. Since he was a teen, it was a depressingly similar path – from the streets, to a cell and back again. Now nearly 24, he’s living in a transitional housing program for former foster youth and working on getting an extension so he can secure a safe place to stay while he finishes school. 

“I feel like I started maturing about the age of 20,” Jones said of his remarkable recent strides in turning his life around. “And obviously at the age of 20, I only had one more year to really use services and the extended benefits.”

Beall said that, while pricey in the short term, extending foster care for young promising adults like Jones will save lives – and the public money. 

“The prisons are now full of former foster youth,” Beall said. But because the state too often does “a lousy job” raising them, he added that now “we’re spending billions and billions of dollars incarcerating people that we had the responsibility of taking care of.”

He called it “heartbreaking” to lose a chance at more than doubling the time young adults can rely on foster care benefits. He’d been working toward this goal for years, he said. And – given the state’s relatively rosy pre-pandemic economic landscape and a sympathetic governor – he had envisioned his last year in the Senate as the perfect time to get it passed. 

But as lawmakers strive to combat the immediate health and economic crisis “all the ideas like this just kind of disappeared,” Beall said. “I think it would have had a very good chance if the virus hadn’t hit.” 

‘On your 18th birthday, you were given a big black garbage bag’

For generations, the state’s role as parent ended abruptly. 

“On your 18th birthday, you were given a big black garbage bag, told to throw your stuff into it, and then we dropped you on a corner,” said Susanna Kniffen, senior director of the advocacy group Children Now. “That was actually, literally, their reality.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of all young adults, even those in the middle class, shack up with parents and rely on them for financial help with food and rent well into their 30s, census data shows.

“We started to ask: What are we doing dumping these young people on the street?” Kniffen said. “As a society we started to see adulthood differently, and that transition to adulthood – and we realized we have not prepared foster youth at all like a good parent would, and then we treated them so harshly.”

Eventually, these experiences were documented by social scientists: Life after foster care was indeed brutal. Beginning in 2002, researchers with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago launched longitudinal surveys of teenagers “aging out” of the system. The findings showed they were “faring worse than their same-age peers — in many cases much worse.” 

Homelessness, hobbled education, mental illness and little income left relatively few “with the skills necessary to thrive in today’s economy.” More than half of former foster youth had been arrested as juveniles, and high percentages were victims of crimes as well – far more likely to be preyed upon, beaten, stabbed, shot at and robbed.

extended foster care
Joseph Jones, 23, in downtown Oakland, California. Photo: Max Whittaker

In contrast, the Chapin study found, foster youth who were provided benefits and services beyond age 18 in a state-funded program in Illinois were more than twice as likely to finish at least a year of college. For each extra year in care, their annual income rose an average $924. As an optional program, extended foster care had also proved popular. In Illinois, 81 percent of 18-year-olds chose to participate.  

The Chapin Hall researchers, who continue their work through a large-scale study still ongoing in California, reported in 2005 that their findings “call into question the wisdom of federal and state policies that result in foster youth being discharged from care at or shortly after their eighteenth birthday.”

Extended foster care: ‘Congress has the power. Act now’

The federal government had been slow to catch up.

In 1999, the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act provided states with a modest amount of money to help teens and young adults. States continue to divide up $140 million for independent living assistance for those up to age 23, and Chafee-funded vouchers provide up to $5,000 a year for young people enrolled in college or job training.

But it was a thin and conditional safety net, hinged on staying in school and getting good grades. 

The 2008 Fostering Connections Act linked extended foster care to the largest spigot of federal funds for child welfare – Title IV-E, a Medicaid-like entitlement that matches spending by states on family preservation efforts, foster care placements and subsidies to adoptive parents.

Lupe Ortiz-Tovar – who grew up in foster care and moved 11 times, living with more than 35 foster brothers and sisters – is credited with pushing lawmakers to pass the federal law. Testifying before a House Ways and Means subcommittee in February 2008, the then-26-year-old Ortiz-Tovar remembers “feeling tiny in this huge round room.” Her voice came out shaky amid the formality of the hearing. But Ortiz-Tovar managed to describe losing contact with her birth family, including six siblings, and being sent at age 15 to an out-of-state locked down facility. She was told she’d spend a month there, but that turned into a year and a half. 

She was speaking for 12 million people who have been through similar treacherous journeys and then were told to go off and make it in the world alone, Ortiz-Tovar told Congress members. And “at the very least,” the government could provide support until those children raised in the system turned 21. 

“Congress has the power,” she said, “and I ask you on behalf of all of my brothers and sisters who cannot be sitting here with me, to do something now.”

Today, Ortiz-Tovar works for a federal contractor collecting data on young adults in foster care. And five years ago, in her thirties, she was adopted by her one-time mentor and his husband. 

“I was terrified to share some of these things,” she said of her 2008 testimony. “But I knew there was a reason for what I had experienced, and it almost gave purpose to my former pain. Once I was done, I kind of left it in the room.”

Sean Hughes, then a legislative staffer, recalled: “You could see everyone on the dais really perk up with the testimony. That inspired everyone to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Surprising popularity — and unexpected costs

After federal funds became available, AB 12 became California law in 2010, beginning a gradual ramp-up over two years. In 2012, 5,100 young Californians enrolled, and by last October, there were 7,358 18-to-21-year-olds in foster care. 

The program has astounded everyone with its popularity: In its most recent count, the California Department of Social Services reports that almost 85% of those who turned 18 in foster care in the last fiscal year chose to remain in the system. Counties such as Santa Clara and Alameda report 90% to 100% of teenagers opting in.

“At first, kids were like: ‘Foster care? I’m out of here, see you!’” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Katherine Lucero. “But there’s been a huge effort to keep youth in the loop.”

extended foster care

Yet the unexpected popularity has had a downside. In many counties, with so many opting in, available funds have not matched demand. The problem appears most acute in Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s largest foster care system, where a $350 million shortfall has built up in the eight years since AB 12 took effect. 

The state provides L.A. funding to cover 700 young people in extended foster care, but county officials say they serve more than 2,600 18- to 21-year-olds, and that requires scrambling for extra funds. 

Child welfare leaders across the state say other counties, too, struggle to cover the tab for extended foster care – and that struggle existed well before the coronavirus ravaged the global economy.

Beall has faith, though, that some of his colleagues in the Legislature will take up the mantle of his work to extend foster care once the state is in a better financial position. Several, including Democrats Mark Stone, Mike Gipson, Joaquin Arambula and Sydney Kamlager, have championed other foster care bills and demonstrated they have a heart for this population and understand their need for longer-term support, he said in an interview this month. 

‘Mind-boggling’ obstacles

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Paul Seave, who presides over a weekly calendar for “non-minor dependents” in foster care, said it’s almost impossible now to imagine a system that ended at age 18, given the problems almost endemic to life after foster care. And he tries his best to keep benefits going as long as legally possible, even when young people struggle to meet eligibility requirements that they work or study. 

A day in the ordinarily confidential juvenile court last December observed by a reporter revealed the myriad hurdles. Seave’s first case involved a young woman who was “credit deficient” in her online classes. But there appeared to be a good reason: She had been in and out of the hospital with pregnancy complications. 

Last year, 883 of the 7,500 18-to-21-year-olds in California foster care were raising a child or children of their own, according to state data. In this young mother-to-be’s case, her supportive benefits were threatened because she had canceled visits with her social worker and had “failed to produce proof of hospitalization.”

Another young person was described as “whereabouts unknown.” A social worker reported she had even scoured the homeless encampments he was said to frequent, but with no luck. 

Other challenges presented that day were mundane but outsize in their impact on those barreling toward age 21 with no lifeline – things like credit nightmares and crippling debt. One young person had their cell phone stolen, and the thief ran up $2,000 in charges. A parent of a 1-year-old had enrolled in a private medical assistant program that had failed to deliver any practical vocational help, while pummeling her with student loan debt. Others needed rides to therapy and help getting birth certificates. 

Later in the day, a young woman turning 21 was congratulated at her last check-in. She was a success story. “Steadily employed at McDonald’s,” her attorney reported.

Joseph Jones, 23, in downtown Oakland, California. Photo: Max Whittaker

Now, in a society pummeled by the pandemic, these obstacles have grown to an almost unfathomable level.  

The closure of all nonessential businesses, though gradually easing, has driven tens of millions to the unemployment rolls and has people who’d never before needed government assistance lining up at food banks. A recent national survey of foster youth age 18 to 24 by the nonprofit FosterClub found that two-thirds have been laid off or had their hours significantly reduced during the pandemic. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research found that 67% of current and former foster youth reported significant negative effects on their academic progress. More than half reported increased struggles with their mental health. 

Judge Seave said as the father of two adult children in their mid-20s, he’s especially sympathetic with the young adults who – before the temporary shutdowns of public places, courts included – appeared before him in court each Thursday. Without parental support, he said, it would have been “unimaginable” for his own children to move out into the adult world. 

“We come into contact with so many challenges that they face – that anybody would face – but for foster adults it’s that much harder,” Seave said. “There are so many obstacles to becoming independent it’s just mind-boggling.” 

The new precipice: Age 21

The strategy of lengthening the runway for California foster youth has produced some tangible results. Extended foster care participation is now estimated to increase a young person’s lifetime earnings by $72,000, with earnings of nearly $500,000 more for those with a college degree, according to the Alliance for Children’s Rights. The advocacy group also estimates that there is a national cost for not extending foster care some $8 billion in federal spending for young people who end up in jail, homeless and unemployed.

In California, a study released last year by Chapin Hall found that youth who remain in extended foster care after they turn 18 have more savings and are more educated than their peers who exit foster care at 18.

Yet despite three extra years of help, Chapin Hall concluded, the 21-year-olds were still “faring poorly compared to peers their age,” and “that more work can and should be done to better support them during the transition to adulthood.”

In dozens of interviews late last year about the quality of AB 12 as a safety net – well before former foster youths’ struggle for survival became dramatically more dire – one consistent theme emerged: Even in California, with a more generous safety net than perhaps any other state, it’s still not enough. The precipice young people leaving foster care once faced at 18 has been shored up. But for far too many, it has simply been delayed three years into a lonely plunge at age 21.

For many, Chapin Hall’s most devastating study finding was the levels of isolation among former foster youth – an absence of people they could rely on to help them through daily life. Almost half of those surveyed said they did not have enough people to turn to for advice, guidance and emotional or tangible support — something always important, but becoming increasingly crucial during such a time of universal uncertainty and anxiety. 

“Who holds the baby shower? Where do you go for Thanksgiving? It’s not solved at 21,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth. Providing ongoing support “is not just a safety net,” she said. It’s for their “happiness on the planet.”

Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle, and a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Mercury News. She can be reached at kdesa@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Staff Writer Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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This four-part series by The Chronicle of Social Change was reported and written by Karen de Sá, Sara Tiano and Katarina Sayally, with editing by John Kelly. Christine Ongjoco created the illustrations. The project was mostly reported before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and included months of ongoing communication with current and former foster youth, observations in two confidential courtrooms and interviews with more than 60 child welfare experts. Facts have been updated to better reflect current circumstances. 

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