The Foster-Care-to-Homelessness Pipeline
Transitioning From State Foster Care to Adulthood
Each year, 20,000-30,000 young adults nationally, including 600-1,000+ in Massachusetts, age out of foster care custody. In Massachusetts, this aging out process happens at age 18 when young adults are given the option to leave foster care, or by age 22 if the young adult chooses to continue their system involvement voluntarily. If a young adult chooses to stay on, there are requirements, including contact with a caseworker and educational responsibilities, that they must fulfill to stay under state care.
Legally, young adults have many rights before and while making their decision to leave or stay in foster care at age 18. They have the right to a plan of services as they transition to adulthood, which federal law dictates starts at age 14. They must be involved in making their transition plan as they consider transitioning from state care at least 90 days before potential termination of services (i.e., at least 90 days before they turn 18). The transition plan, approved by a judge and the young adult’s appointed lawyer, must include a safe place to live and specific options on “health insurance, education, local opportunities for mentors and continuing support services, workforce supports and employment services, and information about the importance of designating a health care proxy,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Foster Care Youth Transition Toolkit. Even if a young adult chooses to leave state care at 18, they are still entitled to various benefits for having been in foster care, including access to an Adolescent Outreach Worker until age 21. All of this is to say that, on paper, young adults transitioning from foster care to their own care appear to be well supported for success.
The Reality of Foster Care, Homelessness, and Under/Unemployment
This, however, is not the reality. As a society, we fail those leaving the foster care system. Outcomes for former foster care youth are painful, whether in terms of education, incarceration, employment, food insecurity, or housing. Around 20% of the United States’ aged-out young adults become homeless immediately upon leaving state care. And anywhere from 25%-40% of former foster care young adults are homeless within four years of aging out. In one Massachusetts-based study, 34% of 200 21-year-olds who aged out of foster care had experienced homelessness since aging out. The statistics remain grim for the homeless population at large: 23%-47% of people experiencing homelessness have childhood histories of out-of-home placement.
Being unhoused only compounds other risk factors that foster care youth experience when aging out. HopeWell, a Massachusetts nonprofit, puts it succinctly:
“By age 26, only three to four percent of youth who aged out of foster care earn a college degree. One in five of these youth will become homeless after turning 18. Only half will obtain employment by 24. Over 70 percent of female foster youth will become pregnant by 21, and one in four former foster youth will experience PTSD.”
When it comes to employment specifically, under/unemployment, homelessness, and former foster care involvement feed into one another. Both former foster care youth and youth experiencing homelessness struggle to find long-term and/or living-wage employment due to barriers such as access to identification, lack of stable address, lack of education, and inability to access resources (clothes/hygiene for the job, internet/phone for correspondence, access to transit, etc.). With many aged-out young adults and youth experiencing homelessness lacking a support system, knowing how to navigate the job market is difficult at best. As a result, up to 54% of aged-out youth are unemployed at age 26, and even former foster care youth who are employed make less than their peers on average. Aged-out youth are statistically more likely to be working poorly paying, non-skilled jobs, which prevents them from finding stability and can lead to homelessness.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Clearly, there is a gap between what foster care youth are guaranteed by federal law and what they actually receive with regards to housing, money resources, and more. But what is being done or can be done about it?
The good news is in recent history there has been a recognition of the lack of support foster care youth receive after aging out and particularly the prevalence of homelessness among foster care youth immediately after they age out. Many research and nonprofit organizations (e.g., the Jim Casey Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Chapin Hall, and MidWest Evaluation to name a few) have published studies with research on aged-out foster care youth experiencing homelessness. Some local organizations like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and More Than Words have called for accountability in the foster-care-to-homelessness pipeline and Breaktime adds our voice to theirs. There are also nonprofits in Massachusetts already addressing aged-out youth homelessness, such as HopeWell. Individuals and the nonprofit community must continue to raise awareness around and support interruption of the foster-care-to-homelessness pipeline.
The federal government has already protected many rights of foster care youth on paper, and it has made steps toward changing the foster care system in the last 20 years. The Federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed in 2008, which permits states to allow youth to stay in foster care until age 21. The government also began HUD’s Foster Youth to Independence Initiative in 2019, which aims to provide housing assistance specifically to youth transitioning out of the foster care system. Hopefully this program will continue to expand, including throughout Massachusetts.
Overall, the most important improvement needed in the foster care system is education for youth on their legal rights as well as accountability. Every young person in foster care deserves to know their rights to (1) transitional planning starting at age 14; (2) a plan 90 days before aging out that details their transition, including a housing plan; (3) their right to voluntarily stay involved in foster care until age 22 and what that entails; 4) their right to a lawyer throughout these processes and for any component of the process they feel is being skipped or done poorly; and (5) this process being youth-led with the youth’s best interests at the forefront.
Foster care workers should be held accountable for the provision of these rights, but so should the federal government, which acts as the “parent” of each foster care youth. While their legally mandated transition plan requires them to have a safe place to live, one in five young adults is homeless immediately upon transition. There is a lack of accountability. Organizations working with foster-care-involved young adults should emphasize their rights to youth and hold their social workers and lawyers accountable in the transition process. Moreover, organizations involved in either housing or preventing homelessness should be in direct contact and collaborate with foster care agencies, given how prevalent homelessness is after aging out. An integration of services for young adults aging out is paramount to prevent them from falling through the gaps. It is the least they deserve.
If you are currently in foster care or aged out and looking for resources, we recommend looking at Massachusetts’ Youth In State Care Answer Books and the Foster Care Transition Toolkit as a starting point.
This piece was written by April Tate, Program Manager of Training with assistance from Cameron Corbett, Breaktime Alumnus.