Improving the odds for young people leaving foster care

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'Seven,' a former foster care youth, struggled when leaving foster care until she got help with housing.

Guest Opinion

Transitioning into adulthood can be a daunting experience. For many young people it’s challenging enough to juggle a job and academic studies: It's no wonder more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds live with their parents while postponing the search for a new address.

Think about how difficult this transition would be if the home or homes you grew up in were no longer an option and you couldn’t turn to your parents for guidance or financial help.

Last year, 605 foster youth in Washington faced that added difficulty simply because they turned 18. By “aging out” of the foster-care system, they lost access to essential services and support.

Sadly, 35 percent of foster youth trying to make that leap alone become homeless within one year.

Since 2006 the state of Washington has taken steps to provide youth aging out of foster care with help they need to steer clear of homelessness, poverty and incarceration. That’s because foster-youth advocates and state lawmakers embarked on a successful, long-term effort to provide extended foster-care services for young adults up to age 21 who are continuing their education, receiving job training, are employed, or have health conditions that prohibit them from doing those things.

We have a responsibility to provide care for those who need it most. In this case, the care being extended includes extended foster home placement, medical services, transitional living support and assistance meeting basic needs.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Legislature and completed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy showed that foster youth receiving extended services remained in college longer, required food stamps for fewer total months and were much less likely to be arrested for a misdemeanor or felony crime.

With research and data in hand we partnered with foster-youth advocates, especially the Mockingbird Society — a leader in this field — on a four-year plan to extend benefits for those who were doing their part to transition into adulthood. During the first year, benefits were extended to students enrolled in school, followed by those working at a job more than 80 hours a month, or receiving job training.

This year we took the final step in this multi-year process by passing legislation to extend these same services to young adults with documented medical conditions that preclude them from working, attending school or earning job skills during that time. These new laws, which would not have become a reality without bipartisan leadership that included the work of Rep. Ruth Kagi and former Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, ensure the most vulnerable of young people may now share in the opportunity and promise of the Extended Foster Care program.

Youth aging out of foster care aspire to be healthy and productive adults just as much as their peers, but must do so without the guidance or financial security parents can offer. While this legislation will reduce long-term costs – as extending assistance is less expensive than incarceration or adding to the homeless population – it is also the right thing to do. Extending assistance during this once-in-a-lifetime transition provides foster youth with the foundation needed to be on their own. Washington’s leadership in this area provides hope to its more than 9,100 foster youth and offers a model approach for other states.

For a Crosscut report in July on the changes in foster care laws, which includes an interview with the woman pictured on this page, click here. You can find more of Crosscut's coverage of kids@risk here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joe Tina Fain Orwall

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, sponsored legislation extending foster-care benefits to age 21.