BEING REMOVED from a family home and placed in foster care is one of the most wrenching events a child can experience, even when it’s absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the number of children in foster care in the United States grew by 10 percent between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2016, reaching more than 437,000 in the latter year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. This rate of increase exceeded overall population growth for the period. A main factor, according to officials, is parental drug abuse due to the opioid epidemic.
For some children, the difficulties of foster care can be compounded by the circumstances under which they are obliged to leave it. Many, to be sure, are either adopted or reunited with their newly stabilized birth families. But each year, thousands “age out” of care at 18, often cast into the adult world without the family connections, skills or resources they need to survive, much less thrive. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation documents the prospects of the roughly 171,000 foster youths who are now 14 years of age or older, and therefore facing near-term exit from the system. The report shows that these young people are significantly less likely than the average person their age to have finished high school or to be employed by the age of 21. Sadly, 30 percent of these young people went through at least a brief period of homelessness. Outcomes are particularly bleak for black youths, who are also disproportionately likely to go through the foster-care system in the first place.
States do make various efforts to aid this vulnerable population, with the help of $140 million in federal funds authorized under a 1999 law sponsored by then-Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.). These programs can help, as evidenced by the Casey Foundation report’s data on Maryland, where former foster-care youths finish high school and find stable housing by 21 at a higher rate than the national post-foster-care population — though the former is still at a lower rate than Maryland’s 21-year-old population generally. A similar statement applies for Virginia. In the District, however, post-foster 21-year-olds lag their national peers in educational attainment. Overall, the Casey Foundation reports, in more than a third of all states, fewer than half of black foster youths have completed high school or obtain a GED, and fewer than half have found jobs.
The transition from adolescence to independent adulthood can be challenging for everyone. For young men and women leaving foster care, it can be nearly impossible without adequate assistance funded by philanthropy and public resources. The Casey Foundation report provides the information public and private authorities need to tailor policy and target resources so more attention and money reach these often forgotten but vulnerable 18-to-21-year-old Americans.