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A Better Way to Help Young Adults Transition from Foster Care

They face many a myriad of negative outcomes, ranging from homelessness to involvement with the criminal justice system and unplanned pregnancies. But one county’s approach shows promise in helping these youth build better lives.

Side view of a teenage girl wearing a gray hoodie with the hood on looking down sadly.
(Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)
Let’s talk about what happens when youth age out of foster care. But wait — this time, remarkably enough, the news is promising.

Usually it’s not. Far too often stories about former foster-care youths focus on how they ended up after leaving the system: their involvement in criminal activity, the shocking numbers who end up homeless or fail to obtain a high school diploma, or the plagues of mental illness or substance abuse that torment them.

But Clark County, Nev., encompassing the Las Vegas valley, is demonstrating that there’s more to the story. Central to this approach is a program, launched in 2016, that allows youth to leave foster care while still being able to receive direct financial support (the equivalent of the payments provided to foster parents), health-care coverage and access to a social worker when needed. It is producing promising results, and almost every foster-care youth who turns 18 has agreed to participate.

The depressing story of young adults aging out of the foster-care system has received a good deal of attention over the years from policymakers and researchers. This is due to the ongoing challenges these young people have navigating aspects of their early adult lives. Most are either forced out on their 18th birthday or, if eligible to stay, decide to leave due to the negative experiences they encountered in the foster-care system.

Studies have shown that youths exiting foster care face myriad negative outcomes, including the inability to obtain adequate housing that can lead to homelessness, difficulty maintaining employment, poor education attainment, involvement with the criminal justice system and unplanned parenthood. And many of these youths struggle with mental health issues.

Armed with this data, Congress passed three major policies in the past two decades to assist these youth in transitioning out of foster care by mandating independent-living preparation and expanding funding to extend foster care past the age of 18.

However, while some improvements in the lives of these youth have been realized, acceptable outcomes remain elusive. A significant number of states still force youth to leave after their 18th birthday, while a sizable number of young people who could remain opt to leave, citing frustration with the system or feeling that it is not providing them with the services and support they need.

This is why Clark County’s program, known as Step Up, is so encouraging.

In 2001, I conducted a study of young people exiting the foster-care system in Nevada. The research revealed some disturbing findings: Many of these youths were living on the street, lacked money to meet basic living expenses, failed to maintain regular employment, had no health-care coverage, had substantial involvement with law enforcement or experienced early pregnancies.

Last year, I and my colleague David Schlinkert conducted another study of former foster-care youth in Nevada using the same survey and inclusion criteria. What we found was eye opening: With the Step Up program in place, young adults had fared significantly better than their 2001 counterparts in practically every metric. They had better health outcomes, were more financially secure with fewer job terminations, had a notable decline in involvement with the criminal justice system, were engaged in less illegal activity, had better educational outcomes, were experiencing significantly less homelessness and had fewer pregnancies.

The rationale is simple: When you provide support to youth post-foster care, they do better. And it is actually more cost-effective than keeping them in care until they turn 21.

So what is the catch? Why is this program not being widely replicated?

Child welfare is one of the few programs where the federal government provides matching financial assistance to state and local agencies. This includes funds that cover roughly half the cost of care for a foster child as well as the cost of a social worker.

However, Washington will not provide this type of assistance if the youth is not under the legal jurisdiction of a child welfare agency. Since Clark County’s Step Up program provides support post-foster care, it can’t receive these matching funds and instead has to cover 100 percent of the costs.

And this is unfortunate. Even when states allow youth to remain in care past their 18th birthday, few youth take advantage of it. The foster-care experience is not a positive one for many foster kids.

Policymakers, researchers and practitioners should advocate for models such as Step Up that offer extended and flexible support. And the federal government should offer the same matching funds. Youth in Clark County’s program remain under the jurisdiction of the courts. That model should provide the necessary safeguards to satisfy the federal government.

It would be money well spent. Positive outcomes for many of these youth are hard to come by. Doing nothing to help them also costs us money, and, more important, it wastes too many promising lives.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, a former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education and a former county manager of Clark County, Nev.
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