Eight Years Later, “Foster Care to 21” Moving Toward a Majority in U.S.

The Alaska House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill late last week that would enable foster youth to remain in care until age 21. House Bill 27 would permit an extension of one year in state custody to a youth turning 18 without any permanency plan in place; two additional one-year extensions of custody could be achieved through a hearing.

Should Alaska Gov. Bill Walker sign HB27, it will be a big deal for a relatively small number of vulnerable youths. Between 2010 and 2013, just about 270 18-year-olds aged out of Alaska foster care, according to federal data.

Nationally, his signature would mean that Alaska becomes the 24th state to extend foster care to age 21, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). A few states have legislation in the pipeline, reports NCSL, which means we could see this go from a “handful of states” to “more states than not” in less than a decade.

As of 2008, there were just a few states that had extended the runway to 21, in recognition of the fact that most well-supported 18-year-olds, even the ones from wealthy families, weren’t ready to become adults. This point was really hammered into child welfare research when the famed Midwest study by Chapin Hall found that youth who aged out of Illinois foster care at 21 did significantly better on several markers when compared with youth aging out of Iowa and Wisconsin’s systems at age 18.

21The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law that year by George W. Bush, offered states a federal partnership if they wanted to extend foster care through age 21. If a state’s expansion plan is approved by the Children’s Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services, it can draw down IV-E funds to pay for a portion of the foster care services to those over 18.

Of the 23 states that have extended foster care beyond 18, 21 have been approved to tap IV-E funds to serve those older youths.

That is worth noting because two years after Fostering Connections passed, only Texas had applied for an extension to 21 (under the watchful eye of the great foe of federal finance, Gov. Rick Perry). Months later, four more states applied and California was well on its way to doing so.

With California, Illinois, New York and Texas already participating, you’d have to think that well over half of the foster youth in the country now have some ability to remain in care instead of aging out at 18.

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

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