Aging Out of Foster Care: Study Shows Young Adults Still Need a Helping Hand
By Michele McDonald
Young adults who have outgrown the foster care system still need a helping hand the first year on their own or they risk stumbling into problems, according to a new study by Mason researchers.
Homelessness, joblessness, and incarceration may face these young adults in the long term if they don’t have anyone to turn to for help, say Sunny Harris Rome and Miriam Raskin, professors in Mason’s Department of Social Work and authors of the study.
“Maybe if they get off on the right foot, we can change that trajectory,” Rome says. “That first year out is a critical year.”
As part of a pilot study, Raskin and Rome interviewed 19 young people from Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties and the City of Alexandria every month for a year. They ranged in age from 18 to 21.
The researchers learned about the challenges and successes the young people had during the first year on their own out of foster care. “Sometimes we were the most consistent people in their lives,” Raskin says. “Our job was to listen to what happened to them. We didn’t tell them what to do.”
Money, living arrangements, and employment were the top concerns. The young people who had stable jobs and housing did the best, Rome says.
Much as the medical profession offers a bridge between pediatrics and adult services with adolescent medicine, child welfare could do the same for the young people newly on their own without relatives to guide them, Raskin says.
“They’re not really kids, and they’re not really adults, and they’re out there on their own somewhere,” Rome says.
The next step could be to expand the pilot study to include the rest of Virginia, says Jack Ledden, BSW ’85, the director of the Division of Family Services in Virginia’s Department of Social Services. “I think most of the state is well aware that ‘aging out’ is a serious problem, not only for the state of Virginia but across the United States as well,” he says.
The Virginia General Assembly in the next session might revisit the issue of expanding the window for youth to return to foster care after leaving it from 60 days to 180 days, Ledden says. Sometimes young people don’t realize how life-changing the decision to leave foster care is until they’re out on their own, he adds.
Education offers the best outcome but poses a funding challenge. The state provides education and training vouchers (ETV) to help finance college, but the money is limited. Contrary to findings on a national level, all the young people in this study had a high school or GED diploma. Two participants graduated from college and several were in community college during the study.
“These kids aren’t on a straight track—they drop out, work, return to school,” Raskin says. “Even those who have the ability to go to college and want to—it’s sometimes just not possible. The money runs out.”
Despite their best efforts, some of the young adults found themselves with limited options. One young woman finished a medical training program but couldn’t pay the final tuition payment, so she didn’t receive her certificate. She went from possibly earning $15 an hour to a lower-paying cashier job, Raskin says. A small amount of money would have solved the problem.
Money was a constant concern. Offering refreshers to such courses as budgeting could help, Rome says. “When push came to shove and they were on their own, it was a rude awakening,” she says.
The amount of debt owed by the young people surprised the researchers. Fines, cell phone charges, and money borrowed from foster families added up to a $500 to $800 bill, Raskin says. One young woman’s brother ran up tickets on her car and charges on her cell phone.
“It has a multiplier effect,” Rome says of the fines. “It seems small, but it interferes with keeping a job and getting to school. The little things really played a role day to day in their ability to do the big things.”
For example, one young man couldn’t get to his job after his car was wrecked and he didn’t have the money to fix it or even take a bus, Raskin says. “That is how they wind up homeless,” she says. “This is how they end up not going to school. This is how they end up in the criminal justice system.”
Most of the young people entered foster care due to neglect, their behavior, or a parent’s alcohol abuse. Many returned home for short, sporadic stays, mainly because they had nowhere else to go.
“We were surprised by how few maintained contact with their foster families. Most maintained contact with their biological families, especially their siblings,” Rome says. “Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not a good thing.”
Despite these hurdles, when asked about job, school, and living conditions, the young people envisioned careers, houses, and family in the future, Raskin says. “Every single youth was positive. They still thought a year from then everything would be okay. It was all positive down the road. They were very resilient even though they were struggling now.”
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.
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