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Foster kids: Aged out and alone at 18

For kids in foster care, turning 18 isn't a source for celebration. It's a reason to panic.
Youthful angst.

Youthful angst. Photo: Troy Benson/ Flickr

Growing up in a trailer with her uncle and grandfather, Sharayah Lane always knew what her 18th birthday would mean: homelessness.

As expected, when that day came it was marked not by parties, but an immediate end to the foster-care reimbursement checks that allowed Lane’s relatives to cover the costs of sheltering her. No more checks meant no more housing.

“It was just common knowledge — when you turn 18, you’re done,” Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways. For me, that was couch-surfing — keeping my stuff in my backpack and staying wherever I could.”

This phenomenon, known as “aging out” of foster care, is standard for nearly 600 wards of the state who turn 18 each year, and the results are no surprise: Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress. They end up in jail, prison or hospital emergency rooms far more frequently than other teens their age. Many depend on welfare and food stamps. Most never attend college.

Two bills now before the state legislature, including one that got a Senate committee hearing this week (SB 5405), seek to ease this rocky transition by extending monthly foster care benefits to age 21.

Much has been made of millennials as an entitled generation. In reality, Americans aged 20 to 24 face an unemployment rate of 13.2 percent; far higher than the national average. And prospects for their financial rebound are grim — even among the educated. Economists say that graduating from college into a recession can depress future earnings up to 20 percent.

Take all that and consider the outlook for foster youth, most of whom have neither parents nor college degrees.

Lane, for example, spent the three years from 18 to 21 trying, and failing, to find a foothold. She worked as a day laborer, dabbled with selling drugs, then went back to couch-surfing.

“I was trying to get by any way that I could,” she said.

At 21, Lane won admittance to community college with a GED and full-ride scholarship, but soon dropped out, overwhelmed by the pressures of living on her own as an adult when she was, by most measures, still just a kid. Transitional housing, where she stayed, off and on, with two dozen other former foster youth, represented comparative stability.

Across the political spectrum there is wide agreement that the Senate legislation and its House companion (HB 1302) make sense — philosophically, at least.

“I think pretty much everyone agrees on the moral reasons,” said Casey Trupin, a lawyer and child-welfare advocate who worked on the proposed legislation. “It’s whether they will recognize the significant financial benefit to doing this. There’s unassailable evidence that it’s good for us as a society — and good for our pocketbooks — when kids don’t wind up in shelters, in emergency rooms or in prison, because those things are all far more expensive than foster care.”

The question is: How long should taxpayers foot the bill, and at what cost?

“When we’re spending dollars, we need to make sure we’re spending dollars that are going to deliver outcomes,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who sponsored the Senate legislation, but positions himself as a fiscal conservative.

“You’ve got to use your heart, but also your head — where can we really make a difference? Not just a difference in feeling good, but a difference in outcomes, and a difference for taxpayers.”

In Washington, there is scant evidence either way. But a test program in 2006, Foster Care to 21, tracked 50 aging-out teens here and determined that, for every dollar invested, taxpayers reaped $1.35 by reducing youths’ involvement with the corrections system, reliance on food stamps and use of hospital emergency rooms.

Legislators now must weigh those findings with the predicted cost of scaling up the program to cover every young person about to age out of the system — including those with part-time jobs, debilitating medical conditions or criminal records.

The Children’s Administration, which monitors foster youth, estimates that price tag at $23.5 million over the next two years; a figure described as "eyebrow-raising" by Senate Human Services and Corrections Chair Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.

 
 

But advocates who support extending benefits say that the $23.5 million figure is wildly inflated and fails to take matching federal funds into account.

Two years ago, for example, the legislature inched toward extending coverage by allowing foster youth who were completing high school to retain their benefits. The cost for the 510 young people who opted in was $4.3 million for one year, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. Much of the difference between that amount and the proposed budget for the program lies in the larger number of youth who would be served, said DSHS Spokeswoman Chris Case.

Last year, lawmakers again loosened the purse strings, extending benefits to young people who had entered college or vocational training. While the department does not yet have a total expenditure for that cohort, the price for letting foster youths make their way, solo, is well documented.

Nationally, 65 percent drop out of high school, and at least one in 11 become homeless. A study of youth leaving foster care in the Midwest found that 20 percent of young women had received welfare benefits by age 21 and 63 percent were surviving on food stamps. By age 24, 81 percent of young men had been arrested and 25 percent were homeless.

Statistics like this are hard to ignore. But state social workers, while agonizing over the fate of their 18-year-olds, worry that monitoring them for another three years could create unmanageable caseloads.

Of the 565 average foster youth who age out annually in Washington, those with criminal records may be among the most vulnerable, and most difficult, for legislators and the public to support. Most are currently ineligible for extended benefits. Yet very few have even a high school diploma. Saddled with criminal records, and without an education or any means of financial support, the likelihood of their return to prison is high.

Rep. Mary Helen Roberts (D-Lynnwood), who has championed the House bill extending benefits across the board, understands this, as do her colleagues. The great unknown is the state Senate.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” she said. “But this is obviously going to cost dollars, and there is such uncertainty around what the Senate is doing.”

Lane will be watching. Now 24, she has returned to school and is pursuing a degree in communications. She says she wants to be “a voice for the voiceless.”

“I know when you’re 18, you’re an adult, but learning how to take care of yourself and prepare for college, that stuff takes time,” she said. “And I do think it’s pretty interesting that all this stuff happened to me between those ages, 18 to 21.”

InvestigateWest reporter Claudia Rowe joins host Steve Scher on KUOW’s Weekday program on Friday Feb. 15 to discuss foster youth aging out. 94.9 on the FM dial, or www.kuow.org.

Claudia Rowe is a social issues journalist and public speaker. Most recently, her work has been published by InvestigateWest, Mother Jones magazine and the Seattle Times.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 15, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

One would think knowing aging out is fast approaching, they would do a better job of preparing for that day. It appears that that isn't the case however.

Self inflicted misery is always good for a sob story and some public assistance.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Apr 24, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

it never ceases to amaze me how people who have never experienced a situation have the most comments on it. I "aged out", and let me tell you, the emotional anxiety of knowing you have no idea where to go, how to budget bills, a checkbook, anything is what you are preparing for. You are scared and have to move through it or fall. It's hard to get jobs because you don't have the best social skills, (especially if you where in foster care from a young age until your teen years). it took me 4 years of mistakes and being homeless for two of them, for me to learn what it meant to "grow" up. But i guess you are like the true meaning of your name DJINN, just sucking positive from people with uninformed and biased opinions.....

ms_pierce

Posted Tue, Oct 22, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, that's one the most insensitive, self-entitled comments I've ever read. Kids who age out are left with next to no one, and certainly no one who will pay for their college. These kids are usually still in high school (I aged out in September of my senior year) and it's impossible to balance school with a part-time job that would pay for a house, car, gas, food, electricity, insurance, etc. Forget about cell phones and internet access, which makes it even more difficult for these kids considering nearly everything (job applications, college applications, class papers, etc.) requires a computer and internet access. Libraries have time limits and some of the slowest internet connection I've ever seen. With the hours that public high school runs on night school isn't an option. No one has been around to teach these kids how to budget, how to pay bills, how to interview for a job, or how to apply for college.

None of these kids' misery is self-inflicted. They've been given a crappy hand and people like you aren't making it any easier.

Posted Fri, Feb 15, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Im am suggesting that we back up abit and look at how we are prepping the teen aging out foster youth. These young people live in a survival mode most of the time. Helping them to see that they do have control of the decisions they make is empowering for them. Teaching Healthy Relationship Programming is one way to do this.
dixie7

dixie7

Posted Fri, Feb 15, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I was going to try and remain civil, but the hell with it - up yours, Djinn.

Seriously. What a jerk.

Posted Sat, Feb 16, 10:19 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll take that as a compliment. Let me know when you come up with a solution that involves only your money. You're just too eager to spend someone else's money on a problem that only one person can cure. The cure is actually free, but involves a personal commitment to making good choices and no amount of money can instill that.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Feb 16, 4:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the language used to guide these kids is lacking.

"Healthy Relationship Programming"?? Really? "Programming".
"Empowering" one of the most boring and overused words ever.

Let's help these kids mature, and grow up. I don't disagree with some type of funding until age 21, especially if they are enrolled in a college or technical trade school.

But let's not teach them to be non-independent victims, taught from an early age that they need to be "programmed" or "empowered". YE GODS.

Let's also keep DSHS as far away from these kids as possible. That agency needs to be disbanded, it is too far beyond repair. The monumental amount of money wasted at DSHS could be spent in far superior ways to help many categories of need.

Posted Sat, Feb 16, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I have read this article twice; it's bothersome in (at least) two ways. One, the author reports that the uncle and grandfather accepted aid for (at least) several years and then cut ties with the granddaughter/niece. Isn't that worth commenting on? why did that happen? did the author talk to anyone other than Sharayah? Then it is presented as a given that the State is the default protector/supporter of all troubled children (up to age 18 and, it is suggested, beyond). Conservatives have argued for generations that helping troublesome people is best left to the population that knows them, knows their needs, their problems and their potential, i.e., their families, their extended families, friends, the families of friends, churches. I think the conservatives are right. A check writing bureaucracy may make us feel good (noble even) but does it do Sharayah any good? does it make her a part of a family again? it doesn't sound like it.

kieth

Posted Wed, Apr 24, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

family is a funny word, and in reality it's what they can get from you living there, check, foodstamps, tax incentives... it's not just the kids we need to look at, as a former foster kid, i KNOW the foster parents need better screening and more dedicated social workers, there is a HUGE shortage of social workers for these kids, it needs to be stepped up all around....

ms_pierce

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the point here is that we *are* spending money on these kids after they age out of the foster care system. We're spending a lot of money incarcerating them. Could we save money and maybe also do a better job of looking out for these kids if we continued their benefits until they're closer to actual adulthood?

It seems to me that if churches and families were able to care for every child, then we wouldn't have or need a foster care system. It's hard to imagine any child opting for foster care if they had other alternatives.

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Djinn: These are teens who have had no support, been bounced from home to home, and little opportunity to learn the life skills our own children take for granted. You can blame their parents and families all you want, but are you that cold-hearted that you want to just turn them out on the street penniless and tell them to fend for themselves?

And don't you think that without any support it's likely we'll be seeing them again in our court system or in jail? How much do you think THAT will cost?

Or do you even think before posting your neocon rants?

bigyaz

Posted Wed, Feb 20, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for posting - this would have been my "civil" response to Djinn, had his blathering merited such.

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Mentoring and providing access to leadership opportunities, for those that have been in foster care, is the key to economic stability and growth for our country. Please see why at www.transfoster.com.

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