Study Finds Foster Youth Fare Better When They Receive Care Until 21

Maria Serrano couldn’t wait to leave foster care behind when she turned 18 two years ago.

“I didn’t want anything to do with the system,” she said. In foster care since she was 15, Serrano felt unstable in the child welfare system. She particularly hated jumping from school to school.

But her social worker urged her to remain in the system through the age of 21 — known as extended foster care. Reluctantly, she heeded her social worker’s advice, which Serrano now believes changed her life.

Remaining in foster care allowed her to enter a program for transition-age foster youth, where she received mentors and a youth advocate to help her develop life skills, such as writing a resume or paying for a parking ticket.

“My mentors stuck with me,” Serrano said. “They helped me re-enroll in high school. I’m back in school and will be graduating in a few weeks. I’m employed.”

Foster youth like Serrano, who remain in care as young adults, tend to enroll in school, avoid homelessness and have more positive life outcomes generally than youth who age out at 18, according to the most comprehensive study of transition-age foster youth to date.

The Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago on Tuesday released the second wave of findings from its ongoing “California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study” (CalYOUTH). Chapin Hall also organized “Fostering Futures,” a forum to discuss the research findings, at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The event featured University of Chicago Professor Mark Courtney, a Chapin Hall scholar, as well as child welfare advocates and transition-age foster youth, including Serrano.

Mark Courtney
Mark Courtney, researcher and professor at University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. Photo: uchicago.edu

Since 2012, Chapin Hall researchers have surveyed more than 700 transition-age foster youth about their experiences in care. During the study’s first wave, youth discussed their experiences at age 17. The second wave features data about their experiences at 19. The study, which ends in 2017, will next survey youth about their circumstances at 21.

The research focused on foster youth in California because about 60,000 children in the state are in foster care, the largest amount in the nation. In addition, the state became one of the first in the country to extend foster care through age 21 after the California Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act took effect there in 2012. The act was signed into law in 2010 — two years after the federal government passed the national version of the act.

The CalYOUTH study found that most foster youth who remained in foster care after age 18 were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their housing situation and that exiting care put youth at higher risk of homelessness. While 34.4 percent of foster youth who left care reported being homeless after the study’s first phase, just 13.6 percent of foster youth still in care did.

Researchers found discrepancies in all aspects of life between youth in care and those who left the child welfare system. For example, more than double the former (60.6 percent) were enrolled in school compared to the latter (29.8 percent). Moreover, 92.6 percent of youth in care had health insurance compared to 79.9 percent of youth who exited the system. Youth in extended care were also more likely to have a high school diploma, attend college and have access to food and an emotional support system than their counterparts no longer in care.

Although the study outlined numerous benefits extended care provides for transition-age foster youth, it also found that such youth felt underserved in some areas. More than half of survey respondents said they had been adequately prepped in areas such as family planning, sexual health and substance-abuse risks, but they wanted more information about the financial resources available to them. Only two in five, for example, knew about the variety of financial aid resources available to help them pay for schooling.

Steven Ambrocio, a former foster youth who aged out of extended care on his 21st birthday three months ago, said that he can relate to this finding, and that communication between social workers and foster youth needs to improve.

A Pasadena City College student, Ambrocio said he regrets not finding out sooner about the resources available to help him pay for his education.

He also wishes he’d received more preparation to live on his own. Two years ago, he received his own apartment as part of a transitional housing program, but living alone proved challenging.

“I wasn’t ready emotionally and financially, so I was able to get help from my youth advocate and my therapist,” he said. “I have a mentor who helps me budget. It’s not easy when you don’t have your family.”

But after entering foster care when he was about 10 years old, Ambrocio said he’s doing well today. He works as a surgical nursing assistant at a Pasadena hospital and hopes to become a surgeon one day.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Nash said it’s not uncommon to hear foster youth like Ambrocio say they missed out on opportunities because the adults in their lives aren’t fully informed about the options they have.

“We still need to do to a better job of training judges, attorneys, social workers and caregivers, so they know what services and benefits are available for the youth,” he said. “They can advise them and help them accordingly.”

Panelists also debated whether foster care should be extended beyond age 21, pointing out that studies show Americans typically don’t reach independence until well into their 20s.

“I wouldn’t mind if it were extended to 24,” Courtney said. “It’s a reflection of what we know about brain development. The average age of independence is 26 years old and when the Great Recession hit, the number went up.”

Courtney said that the Affordable Care Act gives parents the option to include children on health insurance until age 26 because the middle class demanded such provisions. But foster youth typically come from underprivileged backgrounds without much political leverage or social clout.

Even if extended care for foster youth stretched into the mid 20s, Serrano suspects that many young adults would be hesitant to remain in the system, as she was.

Foster youth grow tired of having judges, lawyers, social workers and caregivers control all aspects of their lives. They also tire of the transient lifestyle many youth in care have, Serrano said. So it’s tempting to think, “I want to be somewhere stable. …I’m just fed up,” she said. “I don’t want to deal with this anymore.”

But Serrano would have missed out on valuable support if she’d left the system after turning 18.

“It’s wonderful,” she said of extended care. “It worked for me and it’s worked for other youth in the same position that I was in once.”

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.

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