Most teenagers can’t wait to turn 18 or 21 to enjoy their freedom. However, for teens in foster care, these ages carry with it a freedom that isn’t always wanted. Every year more than 20,000 youth in foster care age out of the system and lose life-changing services in the process.
When youth age out, they become ineligible for the state funding they have received since entering the foster care system. This funding helps them with everything from housing to medical care. Youth also no longer have caseworkers to talk with when issues arise or foster families to welcome them home after a long day. Many go from having a variety of resources and people supporting them to being alone in the world.
Prior to the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (FCA), only youth under the age of 18 were eligible to be in foster care. The FCA provided states the option to receive federal funding that extends foster children’s benefits to the age of 21. Since 2008, 26 states, including New Jersey and the District of Columbia, have passed the act allowing youth to choose to stay in foster care until their 21st birthday.
While the FCA was a major stride in the right direction, older foster children still face an uphill battle. The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 1 in 5 foster youth will experience homelessness after turning 18 and by the age of 24, only half will be employed.
The issues those leaving foster care face not only have an impact on them but also on society as a whole. The looming challenges they endure after leaving care have an estimated cost of nearly 8 billion dollars for every year’s group of aged out foster youth.
Aging out of Foster Care in America
Fortunately, there are numerous national and statewide efforts aimed at reducing these staggering statistics. For more than 20 percent of aged out foster youth experiencing homelessness, one of their biggest advocates is Covenant House. This nonprofit has locations in 30 cities throughout North America and more than 1/3 of those that come to the organization for assistance are those that have aged out of foster care system. Covenant House offers a variety of resources to help homeless youth develop the life skills needed to get off the streets. Along with offering room and board and clean clothes, Covenant House also provides educational services to help residents obtain GEDs and certifications in various vocations, ranging from the culinary field to medical professions.
LifeWorks, a Texas based nonprofit, provides shelter to more than 140 youth every night in the Greater Austin area. Additionally, the organization looks to better their residents’ future by finding them a sustainable place to call home, helping them obtain a higher level of education and preparing them to begin their job search. As one of the largest free mental health counseling facilities in Texas, LifeWorks aims to help former foster youth, a demographic that is twice as likely to suffer from PTSD than veterans returning from Iraq, grow into healthy adults.
The Monkey & The Elephant, a nonprofit café located in Philadelphia, goes beyond offering shelter and life skills training. It offers former foster youth an apartment, a job and a comprehensive personal development program spanning 10 months. Every youth that has completed the program has left with a more stable life after having acquired employment and housing of their own. While working with The Monkey & The Elephant, the youth develop the skills needed to maintain a job and improve self-awareness and self-esteem. The life skills they receive, such as time management and budgeting, will go on to serve them throughout their lives. One of the café’s collaborators that helps support those in the program is the aforementioned Covenant House.
While one organization may not be able to help the 20,000+ foster youth that age out of the foster care system every year, their combined efforts have helped thousands find the path to a more successful future.
Aging Out of Foster Care in New Jersey
Since matching the national average of foster youth aging out in 2011 at 10 percent, New Jersey has made strides in reducing that figure to 7 percent in 2015. As New Jersey continues to improve these numbers by finding permanency plans for every child in care, there are a variety of services throughout the state that help these young adults successfully transition to the next chapter of their lives.
New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) Office of Adolescent Services (OAS) focuses on supporting youth transitioning to adulthood. Their goal is to prepare those aging out of foster care to live on their own through a variety of programs that focus on topics like financial stability, physical and mental health care, housing and other valuable life skills. OAS continuously works to partner with other organizations to make it easier for youth to get the support they need.
With just 2 percent of foster youth obtaining a college degree by the age of 25 nationally, there is an ever present need to help improve these numbers. Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) works with DCF to offset the cost of secondary education for these youth through the New Jersey Foster Care (NJFC) Scholars Program. Since its inception in 2003, the program has provided financial support to over 300 NJFC Scholars that have gone on to graduate with a degree.
The NJFC Scholars Program assists students in covering tuition, room and board, books and supplies, among other costs associated with secondary education. The program is offered to eligible youth in foster care and those who have aged out of the system. Along with assisting youth with financial support, FAFS also finds gap housing for these students to ensure they don’t become homeless during times off from school, such as summer and winter break.
For more information about services that support youth that are about to or have aged out of the foster care system, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has set up the Child Welfare Information Gateway website. Their page offers valuable resources to transitioning youth and links to state specific programs.
Those in New Jersey interested in learning more about services FAFS offers to youth aging out of foster care, such as the NJFC Scholars Program, click here.
If you’re not a NJ resident, click here for national services.