In exiting foster care, some youth see freedom, others see an uncertain future.
By Sara Tiano
Joseph Jones was 2 years old when he entered the foster care system in Alameda County, California. He spent his early childhood years being shuffled from one foster home to another, never staying anywhere too long. As he became a teenager and harder to match with a foster family, he lived in a series of group homes before eventually being sent off to residential treatment centers in other states.
His transient childhood left Jones with almost no connections to supportive adults he could turn to for guidance as he approached adulthood. One month before he turned 21, the age limit for foster care in California, Jones lost his housing and found himself in jail. Now 24, he is still struggling to secure permanent housing after falling in and out of homelessness since leaving care.
Though child welfare agencies strive to find a “forever” home for every young person in foster care — whether with their birth family or another permanent supportive adult — the reality is that some never find that. For these teens, their path out of the child welfare system is called emancipation, which some young people commonly refer to as “aging out.”
The exact definition of emancipation varies state by state based on whether or not they offer extended foster care, and through what age. Extended foster care is offered in some form in every state except Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., with most jurisdictions capping benefits at age 21. Someone emancipates when they exit the system because they have reached the age limit, or if they opt out of extended foster care where it’s available. According to federal data, of the nearly quarter-million youth in foster care in 2019, 8% — or 20,445 — exited foster care through emancipation.
For many, emancipation is not chosen — it is the only option when nothing else has worked out, often following a string of disappointing experiences with foster families that didn’t last and stints in group homes.
“If they did have any support, they’d be where that support is,” said Kamela Stewart, the housing and coaching manager at Beyond Emancipation, a nonprofit working to support foster youth in California’s Bay Area as they make the transition to independence.
Others, though, choose to leave the system even when they have the option of remaining in care: 4% of foster youth list emancipation as their permanency goal on their case plan, federal data shows. This can be the case, for example, when someone enters foster care as a 15- or 16-year-old and doesn’t have long before they’ll age out. Young adults older than 18 participating in extended foster care can emancipate at any time, and some opt out of those extra years of support completely.
Vanetta Johnson, executive director of Beyond Emancipation, has walked this path herself. She aged out of foster care in a rural California county when she was 18, before the state implemented extended foster care in 2010. She’d been with the same foster family for 15 years but said she wasn’t supported by them.
“I understand why foster youth make the decision to turn 18 and run,” she said.
Many youth who have grown up in the system felt like they had no control over their lives, and when they hit 18, some leap at the chance for independence — to be free from social workers telling them what to do, Johnson and Stewart said.
But, like any 18-year-old, many making this choice don’t have a full-scope sense of what “independent living” actually looks like, Stewart added. For youth who don’t have family or parental figures around to show them the ropes — things like budgeting, grocery shopping and managing health care — this can prove especially challenging. In big cities with overwhelmed housing markets, finding and staying in a safe home can be the number one struggle for foster youth striking out on their own, often applying for competitive apartments without financial help, a rental history or someone to co-sign.
Beyond the hurdle of meeting their own basic needs, Stewart said mental health is among the biggest challenges the youth she works with face. The years of unstable housing while bouncing around to different foster homes takes a mental toll that can be compounded when they’re again faced with a sense of insecurity around their housing as newly minted adults.
It is well-known that foster youth as a whole face challenging odds after they age out of care. Chapin Hall’s seminal 2011 Midwest Evaluation studied outcomes of former foster youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin by conducting a series of interviews with young people in the years following their exit from the system. Fifteen percent reported having experienced homelessness or housing instability, and less than half had a job at the time of the interview. Well over half had been arrested at least once and many — nearly two-thirds of the men in the cohort — had been incarcerated. Less than 3% had earned a college degree by age 26, and nearly 20% didn’t have a high school diploma or GED at the same age.
Another study by the same researchers found that nearly half of the former foster youth interviewed reported feeling a sense of isolation, not having a strong enough support system to turn to.
Many of these struggles have become even more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic. A national survey from the nonprofit FosterClub found that nearly two-thirds of former foster youth have lost their jobs or seen their hours cut significantly, and many have faced huge new barriers to their education with many schools relying on remote learning. More than half reported worsening mental health.
Johnson and Stewart with Beyond Emancipation said a key way foster parents can help give teens in their care the best chance of succeeding once they age out is to get them involved with independent living programs early to get a head start on learning the life skills they’ll need to take care of themselves. Being fully aware of all their options can help transition-aged youth feel empowered, and give both the young person and their caregiver a sense of what resources are available and potentially helpful in the future.
Stewart also encourages helping teens identify and explore interests early, and start considering how their passions and skills could shape education and career goals.
“A lot of these youth don’t have a next step that’s already built in,” she said.
Back in Alameda County, Jones is working hard to coalesce the support he needs to take his next step — getting his GED so he can go to college to study law, and securing a 36-month housing lease to make sure he can make it to graduation with a steady roof over his head.
Despite the challenges of his past and the upheaval this year has thrown at him, Jones remains optimistic as he strives forward: “2020 is my year,” he says.
Sara Tiano is a Los Angeles-based senior reporter for The Imprint covering issues involving children, youth and families in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, with a focus on L.A. County. Through Fostering Media Connections’ Youth Voice program, she leads journalism workshops and one-on-one trainings for teens and young adults. Her work has previously appeared in Los Angeles Daily News, WitnessLA, Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Tiano graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in print and digital journalism.