On April 29, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation recognizing May as National Foster Care Month.
"For nearly half a million youth in foster care across our country," the president began in the lengthy statement, "the best path to success we can give them is the chance to experience a loving home where they can feel secure and thrive."
That he did it doesn't seem momentous, until you realize that he was renewing federal acknowledgment of the awareness month after similar proclamations had lapsed under President Bill Clinton. The Obama administration told The Root that it's just one small way they're working to help foster-care youth — a renewed focus that includes fresh initiatives to help children move into permanent homes, as well as increased support for those who age out of the system.
The policy push may affect in particular African-American children, who, despite accounting for 14 percent of the U.S. child population, make up 30 percent of foster-care youths. According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report (pdf), black children also stay in foster care longer than children of other races.
Of the 30,000 foster-care youths who age out each year and suddenly find themselves on their own at age 18, most lack a high school diploma, and only 6 percent go on to earn college degrees. Unemployment and poverty-level wages are common, and an astounding 40 percent of young people aging out of foster care will at some point be homeless. Even under the best of circumstances, without the lifeline of parents and a home to help them ease into adulthood, meeting basic needs can still be a struggle.
Without a Net
Edward Washington lived that struggle. The eldest of 12 children born to a single mother who had left his heroin-addicted father, he and his siblings entered foster care because of parental neglect when he was 14. He says, however, that moving into a group home — with seven other boys, two house parents and a fatherly social worker — provided a stable environment after the tough Atlanta housing project he came from. "A lot of people have bad experiences in foster care," Washington, now 29, told The Root. "But for me it saved my life."
The familial atmosphere shifted during Washington's senior year of high school, when he clashed with the new social worker who was assigned to his home. At 18 he started attending Morris Brown College and lived on campus — until classes let out for the summer. His mother, financially unstable and without her own place, couldn't take him in.
"I tried going back to the group home, but I couldn't stay there because I had aged out," he said. "I hid out in my dorm until the school made me leave. I'd never felt so helpless." Dragging his few belongings in a plastic trash bag, Washington returned to the projects where he grew up and crashed on old neighbors' couches for as long as he could. On nights when he couldn't find a place to stay, he'd sit in a nearby park and try to stay awake until the sun came up.
Washington, who made plans to stay with close friends each subsequent summer, says he was more fortunate than people who aged out of the system and wound up on the street for years. Today he works for Georgia EmpowerMEnt, an advocacy group that helps people exiting the system find a permanent place to live. "Especially back when I was leaving foster care 10 years ago, people aging out just had nowhere permanent to go," he said, adding that although his state now does a far better job, former foster children still need assistance.
Fostering New Strategies
It's precisely these young people whom the federal government is targeting now. "The biggest child-welfare story in the 1980s and 1990s was the dramatic increase in the number of children entering foster care," Bryan Samuels — commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — told The Root. Congress passed successful legislation requiring states to focus more on permanent placement in 1997, and today there are 25 percent less children in foster care. Of those exiting the system, 80 percent either return to their homes or get adopted.
"When the new administration took over in 2009, we knew there was still work to be done," said Samuels. "The numbers had come down, but it was clear to us that not all children were benefiting from those policies, and states needed to be more vigilant about this subpopulation. Our additional focus has been on these youths who are the most vulnerable, and to put in place services and supports that address their needs."
Samuels' office is working with states to implement the Fostering Connections to Success Act (pdf), legislation passed in 2008 that, among other components, offers funding incentives for states to extend foster care through age 21. A handful of states, including Illinois, New York and Vermont, already do just that. In New York, those benefits are extended automatically; in Illinois and Vermont, foster parents and the child must opt to stay in the program after the child is 18. "In December, states were required to submit their plans for how they will address various foster-care issues," said Samuels. "Based on the 25 plans that have been approved so far, 11 of them included extending care to the older ages. We're beginning to see more states make that commitment."
A new step taken by the Obama administration was the release of the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (pdf). One of its goals is to end homelessness for youths and children within 10 years, in part by connecting older foster-care children to educational opportunities, health insurance and housing stability. In addition to better planning for how foster children will be discharged when they age out, steps include expanding Medicaid for foster-care youths up to age 26 and waiving the application fee for federal student aid.
But much of the plan, released last June, is vague. "The way we've approached this from the beginning was that the plan provided a framework that would be developed," said Samuels, adding that HHS has since held focus groups to flesh out initiatives that will roll out later this summer. "But I think the child-welfare system is well positioned to identify young people who are the most vulnerable, and significantly reduce the likelihood that they'll become homeless after exiting care."
More Expensive Not to Do It?
As many states struggle with budget shortfalls, taking on the expense of helping foster-care youths beyond age 18 is a daunting prospect. Some members of the public may grumble that plenty of people leave home at that age. Samuels, however, points to academic studies showing that when foster care is extended beyond age 18, recipients have better housing and economic outcomes — making them less likely to depend on public resources going forward.
"There's a short-term increase in expenditure to allow youth to stay in care until 21, but there's also a long-term economic benefit," he said. "They're less likely to drop out of high school, less likely to have children before they're ready, and more likely to become employed and become taxpayers."
Washington puts it in simpler terms. "Other kids may leave home, but they usually still have a chance to stay with family if they need to. As a young person in foster care, you feel like the state is your parent," he said. "Even though you're considered a legal adult at 18, you still need a little guidance."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.