Helping Foster Care Youth Transition to Adulthood

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New York State is home to approximately 20,000 young people living in foster care.  About 62 percent live in New York City.  By age 21, they will be on their own.  Many youth who age out the foster care system are unable to successfully transition to independent adulthood, lacking the education, skills, experience, and ongoing parental support necessary to find gainful employment that can support an individual and families.  

Studies conducted in various parts of the country reveal abysmal outcomes for foster youth, particularly those who “age out,” exiting the system as independent adults without having been reunited with their parents or adopted by another family.

When compared to young people in the general population, individuals who have been in foster care have lower levels of employment and earnings, are more likely to rely on public assistance, be incarcerated, and suffer from mental health problems.

By age 26, many young people who have aged out of foster care have faced the sort of harsh times that most of us can only imagine.  Nationally, nearly one in five lacks a high school diploma and less than 5 percent have a college degree.  Given these statistics, it is not surprising that less than half are currently employed.  And most who work are employed in low-wage dead end jobs – their average annual earnings are less than $14,000.

Children of Color

As with the nation’s justice system, the foster care system is disproportionately black and Latino.  In New York City, children of color account for 69 percent of foster care children, including 47 percent black children. 

The poor outcomes of many foster care youth are why Community Service Society has joined with the Children’s Aid Society and organizations across the state to advocate on behalf of children in the foster care system.  We want to ensure that when these young people age out, they will do so with the necessary skills to live promising, independent lives.

The best way to ensure a successful, independent adulthood is a college education.  New Yorkers with a bachelor’s degree are half as likely to be unemployed and earn more than twice as much as those with just a high school diploma.

Fewer than one in four college-age foster and former foster youth in New York attend college.  Given the increasing need for some post-secondary education to get a decent paying job, it is imperative that more foster youth participate and succeed in higher education.

In New York, foster youth are forced to cobble together financial aid from a variety of sources, which adds to their perception that the process of applying for college is too complex, that they can’t afford it, and that they may be better off preparing for aging out of the system by finding a job and saving money.

No Centralized Reporting

In New York City, while we are aware of the challenges foster youth face, we cannot speak with certainty about their outcomes.  This is because there is a lack of central tracking and reporting of meaningful data that would reveal outcomes for the city’s foster youth. 

For instance, there is data on high school graduation rates for every student across multiple cohorts, with a wide range of student characteristics.  However, seeking to learn the graduation rate for those in the foster care system has yielded little in the way of meaningful data.  There is no centralized mechanism to provide such data.

Without regularly reported data, it is impossible for the city to gauge the nature and scope of issues that foster youth face and prioritize policies and funding accordingly, or to gauge the effectiveness of programs designed to aid young people in the foster care system.  Just as important, without reliable data, the public cannot understand the magnitude of the issues facing foster youth.

Currently, there are several bills in the City Council that would mandate reporting data on youth aging out of foster care.  These bills include one that would require the city to report high school graduation rates for youth in foster care.  They should be supported by the majority of Council members and the mayor.

There is more that we can do to help youth aging out of foster care.  New York is in the minority of states that do not provide funding for the cost of higher education for youth in foster care who want to go to college.  Guaranteed, full funding for postsecondary education or training can offer much needed hope, motivation, and opportunities for foster care youth.  It can help to ensure a successful future for one of society’s most vulnerable populations.

Issues Covered

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