During a challenging legislative session this spring, one thing brought senators and representatives together in Olympia: kids.
Both houses expressed empathy for the plight of children in the state’s foster care system who age out on their 18th birthday, like fledglings pushed out of the nest before learning to fly.
For young people who have experienced years of trauma and upheaval during the most vulnerable stages of their growth, turning 18 and losing all of their resources and support systems overnight can be devastating. Eighteen years old may be the arbitrary age of adulthood under the law, but that birthday doesn’t magically turn a teen-ager into a self-sufficient adult.
Lawmakers recognized these challenges with overwhelming approval of the Extended Foster Care bill. It acknowledges the “disproportionate likelihood that youth aging out of foster care and those who spent several years in care will experience poor outcomes in a variety of areas, including limited human capital upon which to build economic security and inability to fully take advantage of secondary and postsecondary educational opportunities, untreated mental or behavioral health problems, involvement in the criminal justice and corrections systems, and early parenthood combined with second-generation child welfare involvement.”
The bill expands the eligibility pool for extended foster care, for youth between age 18 and 21, to provide “access to adequate and appropriate supports during the period of transition from foster care to independence.”
Advocates estimate that as many as 70 percent of the youth aging out of foster care at 18 without adequate resources now will be eligible for up to three more years of support. Newly eligible are those who are:
- Attending college or vocational classes, or
- Participating in a program or activity designed to promote employment or remove barriers to getting a job
One important provision that foster care providers and advocates pushed for was included in the final version. It requires the state Department of Social and Health Services to notify every foster child about the new availability of extended foster care, including detailed information about the benefits they might qualify for by the time they reach the age of 17-and-a-half.
We know the cost of renting an apartment in King County, or even just a room, is prohibitively high for young people working part-time at a minimum-wage job. When you have to decide between paying tuition or rent, education often gets left behind. This early notification will help young people make the choices that will help them succeed in education and training after aging out.
Friends of Youth is a first-hand witness to the gaps in the system and the young people who have struggled without a sturdy bridge from foster care to adulthood. The lucky ones find their way to shelter and transitional housing programs, such as Friends of Youth’s programs, along with health care, opportunities for continuing education and even preparation for a job. Those who aren’t so lucky may resort to life on the street, sometimes turning to criminal activity for food or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Products of the foster care system are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and in our homeless shelters.
Perhaps the most exciting part about this new state emphasis on extending foster care support is the agreement by the Legislature to allocate new funding for services. More than $3 million over two years will go toward helping foster youth transition to independence. It may not cover all the need, but it is a huge step in the right direction.