As of June 2022, it was estimated there were over 391,000 children and youth in the American foster care system.
Foster Care Awareness Month is recognized in May as a time to engage in conversations and learn more about how the Foster Care system works. This blog was thus co-written and informed by Jaysally Alves, a young adult from Breaktime’s program who was in the Department of Children and Families’ care until aging out at 18.
“Technically I've been in DCF my whole life because my first case was when I was a child. But I was in the foster care system [consecutively] from the age of 14 until I aged out at 18,” Jaysally shared.
The foster care system is a complex network of federal, state, and local organizations working together to keep children safe. It is intended to help children and youth thrive in their home and school environments. The ultimate goal of the system is to reunify children with their families, unless it is not possible or safe to do so. Over 77% of all foster children within the system are placed with relatives or non-relative caregivers, while the remainder are placed in group homes, institutions, or supervised independent living. “While I was in DCF care, I believe I was in like 3 different programs and one foster home,” Jaysally shared.
According to the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, children and youth remain in care for an average of 12 to 20 months before they are switched to a permanent home or age out of the system. In most states, when foster youth turn 18, they are no longer able to access the financial, educational, and social supports provided through the child welfare system. 21,000 young people age out of foster care every year in the US.
Many individuals move around different programs and foster homes for years until they age out. The lack of routine and stability emerging from constantly moving around left a lasting impact on Jaysally: “I refuse to buy certain things for myself because I'm scared that my landlord won't renew my lease, even though I haven't done nothing wrong. He tells me I'm a great tenant. But it just scares me that before if they wanted to move you, they would and you couldn’t say anything about it.”
Youth in the foster care system are vulnerable to becoming disconnected from educational and employment opportunities, creating a rougher transition when aging out. Fewer than 60 percent of children and youth formerly in foster care graduate from high school. Factors that contribute to this rate include days, or even months, of missed school, due to residential moves, eviction, and homelessness. Moreover, these trying times, coupled with financial barriers, hinder their pursuit of job opportunities, resulting in limited work experience and even greater economic burdens. Combined with immense social stigma, these obstacles to employment partially explain why 97 percent of young adults who age out of the foster care system immediately enter chronic poverty.
Jaysally recounts her own experience trying to attain job security and financial freedom, “I was like 15 or 16 at the time, I was at the age where I need my own money. I got a job by myself at Chipotle.” Unfortunately, the job was far from the program where Jaysally was currently living, limiting her from this opportunity. Barriers that youth trying to find living-wage employment commonly face include a lack of or limited access to identification, a stable address, education, technology, as well as personal and professional resources. Mental health struggles pose a significant challenge as well. Because of the trauma faced by children and youth in foster care, they experience posttraumatic stress disorder at a rate nearly five times higher than the general adult population, complicating the search for employment. The struggle to find living-wage employment is exacerbated when youth are also trying to achieve long-term housing security.
Youth making the transition to adulthood from foster care fare severely worse than their same-age peers when looking at housing security rates. 40% of them will experience homelessness within 18 months of aging out. For Jaysally, the support transitioning out of DCF was not ideal. “Right after I signed out I ended up being homeless due to not having any funding,” she said. While the system is supposed to create a transition plan with youth to set them up for success as they age out, many fall through the cracks. “I’ve seen amazing DCF workers that have checked up on me. And I wish I would have had them as a DCF worker because some of my friends that had those workers, they don't have no financial problems. They're not scared of becoming homeless again. They never experienced that after aging out.”
The compounded impact of these struggles on youth formerly in foster care can be seen in data and personal experiences. One out of four foster care alumni will become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care. Further, 71 percent of young women will be pregnant before their twenty-first birthday, with half of their children bound for the foster care system themselves, creating a generational cycle of poverty, foster care, and homelessness. Many youth formerly in foster care will continue to struggle with mental health issues, namely self-esteem and self-efficacy problems as well as anxiety, PTSD, and depression.
Jaysally noted that her experiences in the foster care system have damaged her confidence and spirit: “I just get scared to mess up because one tiny little mishap that I could think is nothing could be huge. To this day, I talk about it a lot because people need to understand, just because I'm 23. Deep down inside, when people ask me my age or anything like that, the first thing my brain tells me is ‘you're 16.’”
Protections for Youth Formerly in the Foster Care System
There are numerous laws in place that are intended to protect children and youth in the foster care system and to prevent what Jaysally went through. To name a few, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 created a program to provide financial, housing, employment, education, and other support services to prepare youth who are aging out. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 allows states the option to extend the timeline for aging out when youth meet certain education, training, or work requirements. In 2014, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act required agencies to discuss the development and transition plans of children in foster care over the age of 14.
Nevertheless, the amount of children and youth in foster care makes it easier for individual cases to be forgotten and neglected. For Jaysally, this was in the form of her case manager. “The whole time that I had a DCF worker, I only saw her, I want to say not more than 4 to 5 times. The only thing that saved me was my [court-mandated] mentor. It wasn’t until she came in that they started taking my feelings and concerns seriously.”
In order to better prepare foster youth for their aging out process, federal policy should focus on programs that teach independent living skills. The voices of youth in foster care have often been disregarded when making critical decisions about their own lives. Positive adults, service organizations, and programs that promote and prioritize empowerment are critical resources for youth as they transition into adulthood. Additionally, programs that support foster care alumni in gaining financial literacy, educational and employment opportunities, and housing security are key to ensuring young adults find success in this transition. During her aging out process, Jaysally looked for these types of advocacy organizations and found Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). CASA is a national association that promotes court-appointed advocates for neglected children. “When I got into CASA, I finally felt safe,” she said.
After CASA, Jaysally found Breaktime, where she has been a part of our program for one year. Now, Jaysally is stably employed and housed, all while learning how to navigate the system, her finances, and her personal life. “Breaktime has done a lot of things as far as making sure that I'm stable enough to go through the program, advocating for me, and checking up on me… The support has been the most impactful thing for me. Everyone has different situations in life. The one thing Breaktime made sure to always let me know was when I was having a bad day, I was stressed and couldn't focus on even my Liftoff, to prioritize [my mental health] before anything else,” Jaysally stated. In order to expand access to organizations and programs like Breaktime and CASA, we need individual support in the form of advocacy, visibility, and donations.
“If I could say something to somebody in DCF is make sure you read all the rules and understand what should be done for you. You can empower yourself to protect yourself,” Jaysally concluded. To achieve a successful transition for those aging out of foster care, every child and youth needs unconditional support and resources from individuals, service organizations, and government agencies throughout all stages of their development. This support should be afforded to all youth, regardless of their family status.