The years between 18 and 21 are a precarious time for anyone. That’s particularly true for the more than 23,000 young adults who age out of the foster care system each year. Some 20 percent of them become homeless the moment they’re turned out of foster care. The chance that an aged-out foster child will earn a college degree is less than 3 percent. And 70 percent of the young women no longer under foster supervision become pregnant by the time they turn 21.
But although 25 states extend foster care services past the age of 18 and most offer some transitional services after that age, younger children remain the priority. “There are just less funding and fewer resources allocated to older youth, though states wish they could do more,” says Jessica Foster, director of strategic partnerships at Youth Villages, a Memphis-based nonprofit that has been working since 1999 to help that vulnerable age group.
Youth Villages aims to fill in the gaps where even the most stable young adults sometimes stumble: getting and keeping housing and jobs, paying bills, going to school. “When they leave state care, do they have someone to drop them off at a job interview? Who do they go to when they lose their housing?” she asks. “Most state agencies struggle with helping those youth in that area.”
Youth Villages has partnered with state and local foster care agencies in recent years, and its approach is widely viewed as a national model. A caseworker is assigned to no more than 10 young adults, helping them with everything from shopping for groceries and filing taxes to making sure they have a ride to a job interview. Caseworkers are required to see each young adult at least once a week and are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Youth Villages has worked with Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services since 2007 and Allegheny County, Pa., since last January; similar models exist in parts of 15 other states, mostly among private or nonprofit providers. It will be rolled out soon to child welfare agencies and providers in New York City and Washington, D.C., and at the state level in Louisiana.
Louisiana currently offers only transitional services to aged-out foster youths who are still in high school. State lawmakers are weighing legislation that would extend foster care to the age of 21, an expansion that would work hand in hand with the Youth Villages model. “Extending foster care is a great thing, but we didn’t want to do just that,” says Christy Tate, who manages child welfare programs for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services. “We knew we had to do something more in order to see improved outcomes.”
There’s evidence of better outcomes in the Youth Villages model. A national study by the social services research organization MDRC found that it improved housing stability and economic well-being for those who had aged out of foster care.
The spread of the model is likely to accelerate, thanks to last year’s passage of landmark federal foster care legislation. Connie Mills, a spokesperson for Youth Villages, says some of the services her organization provides will be federally reimbursable under the Family First Prevention Services Act, making the model more fiscally palatable for states and helping to knit together services for former foster youth. “You might have a program that helps with housing, and another that helps with job training,” says Mills, “but to do something this comprehensive, it hasn’t really been done.”
*CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that Youth Villages has been working with Allegheny County, Pa., since last January.