In June 2016, the House of Representatives passed the The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 (or Family First Act) which promises to change the funding structure for the better. The bill would provide federal funding to reduce the number of children that enter the foster care system while extending funding for young adults after they age out of the system.
Enduring abuse, sex trafficking, teen pregnancy, homelessness, and life without family: Foster children often face these realities before reaching the age of 18. And once foster youth age out of the foster care system, it can get even worse.
These issues are a result of the outdated funding structure of the U.S. foster care system. While federal funding is currently available to support foster care, it’s not being effectively used to help foster youth transition to adulthood after they leave the foster care system (or to keep children from entering the foster care system unnecessarily.)
The way the current funding structure for foster programs is set up, children must first be removed from an unsafe environment for funds to be dispersed. In many cases, it would be less traumatizing and more cost-efficient to simply use those funds to make the family living environment safe rather than uprooting and breaking up impoverished families.
For example, if an otherwise caring and capable single mother is unable to provide safe housing due to inability to pay the utility bill or to repair broken windows in her home, wouldn’t the financial and emotional costs associated with making the house safe again be less than having the state assume the role of corporate parent for an indefinite period of time?
There’s no two ways about it: removing children from a loving family can result in lasting trauma and sow the seeds for future mental health issues (read: rising public healthcare costs.)
Under provisions of the proposed Family First Act, states would be able to use federal money to simply make the house safe again, thereby avoiding subjecting children to the foster care system and reducing the load on the program’s limited resources.
Improving Lives Inside the System
The Family First Act also aims improve congregate care, or group homes, and the quality of life for the foster children living there.
Foster children are meant to stay for a short time to receive specific services, such as behavioral counseling, but the trend we’re seeing is foster youth are getting lost in the system due to a lack of placement options for them. Overcrowding compounded with the shortage of resources result in lack of oversight and the youth suffer from rampant abuse and neglect.
Even worse, foster children have limited rights and reporting abuse in foster care comes with it’s own caveats. Best case scenario, reporting abuse in a foster home will result in the foster youth being uprooted again and moved into a new foster home.
Consider that when they move in to a new foster home, they usually have to switch schools too. And every time a child switches schools, he or she is pushed back academically by 6 months. It’s rare for foster children to finish high school on time and attend college.
The average number of moves for a child in foster care is 10 and according to the the National Youth in Transition Database, only 55 percent of 19-year-olds who aged out had obtained a high school diploma or GED.
Aging Out: The Struggle Continues for Former Foster Youth
When children that grew up in the foster care system enter adulthood without having been adopted, it’s called aging out. Caregivers are no longer given money to provide for the children.
The Family First Act amends restrictions on existing programs to aid former foster youth in two main ways:
- Amends the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Grant to allow states to continue providing assistance for former foster youth up to age 23, and to extend eligibility for education and training vouchers to youth to age 26.
- To assist youth aging out of foster care to obtain Medicaid coverage up to age 26, plus The Family First Act requires that former foster youth are provided evidence of their involvement in foster care upon emancipation.
In California, there are 65,000 children and youth are in the foster care system (far more than any other single state) and each year over 4000 of these young Americans will be emancipated from the foster care system as young as 18 years old. These small steps towards foster care reform bring hope, but former foster youth still rely heavily upon financially-strapped non-profit programs like WE LIFT LA for affordable housing, meaningful relationships, and cultivating life skills.
Despite good intentions, many newly emancipated former foster youth don’t have a sense of permanency or a supportive adult helping them with this transition and that makes them vulnerable to some of the following dangerous traps upon entering adulthood:
Teen Pregnancy: Starting a Family for the Wrong Reasons
Even when sex education and contraceptives are made readily available, young girls sometimes get pregnant on purpose to create a family for themselves. While the mentality is present among teens from loving families, it is a markedly greater problem among former foster youth.
Lacking permanence, without a family or a support system to love them, having a baby can seem like a natural solution to loneliness. The National Youth in Transition Database found that from 2012-2014, 12% of 19-year-olds reported having given birth to or fathered a child, and 7% of 17-year-olds had a child.
Compare that to the national teen birth rate of just 2.4% for girls 15-19 years old, according to thenationalcampaign.org.
Tricks of the Trade: Sex Traffickers Specifically Target Former Foster Youth
Another danger which former foster youth are particularly susceptible to is becoming victims of sex trafficking.
Knowing foster youth are vulnerable during the transition to adulthood, sex traffickers target group homes and convince young adults get involved as a means of survival.
Sex traffickers are manipulative, promising stability, and trafficking can be more subtle than someone might think. When you’ve had so much relationship loss, sometimes you don’t know what healthy relationships look like.
Out on the Streets: 36% of Former Foster Youth are Homeless within 18 Months of Aging Out
Perhaps the most well-known, homelessness is another grim outcome former foster children face.
At age 17, 16% had experienced homelessness. According to a report by the National Youth in Transition Database, 19% of 19-year-olds in foster care reported they had been homeless at some point from 2012 to 2014.
While Congress has been working on the bill, the Congressional Budget Office has not yet released a cost analysis.
We can only hope that the bill is passed before the 2016 presidential election. If it doesn’t get done by then, we’re on rocky territory because we don’t know what the next administration will look like.
Meanwhile, WE LIFT LA and other non-profit organizations continue to give hope to the over 1,400 foster youth aging out of the system each year in Los Angeles County. Find out about the different ways you can help former foster youth here.