Good afternoon Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Robin Nixon and I am the Director of Youth Services at the Child Welfare League of America. CWLA is an association of more than one thousand public and private non-profit community based agencies that serve more than three million children, youth, and families each year all across the United States. Virtually all of CWLA’s member agencies provide foster care and other services to teens who can not live safely at home with their families or who are homeless. Over 500 of our members provide specialized independent living and other transitional support to young people who will not be returning to a family and who will be on their own once they leave care. On behalf of our members, and on behalf of the more than 500,000 children and youth in foster care at this very moment, I thank you for the opportunity to testify at this hearing on the challenges confronting older children aging out of foster care.
I have worked with young people for nearly twenty years. I’ve worked as a counselor for abused and neglected youth ranging from 8 to 18 years old living in residential group care facilities. My husband and I spent several years as live-in houseparents to teenage girls in foster care. I have started and run a transitional living program for homeless youth. Since 1994, my work at CWLA has included supporting program directors in designing and implementing youth programs, training social workers, foster parents, and youth workers, and developing resources for the field of child welfare around youth issues.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the many young people who have successfully endured the many hardships of abuse and neglect, abandonment, and being placed in lots of different foster homes. Children and youths who have been abused and neglected and removed from their homes are wards of the state. I believe that we have a responsibility to offer them the support they need to lead healthy, productive lives as adults. What I see today is that we are failing these young people. We can and must do more to assist youths in foster care make a safe, successful transition to adulthood.
As a youth worker, I encountered young people who were experiencing tremendous challenges to self-sufficiency and to their very survival. I often asked myself how in the world we could expect these teens, who were barely old enough to drive, and many of whom were just finishing high school, to be emotionally and economically self-sufficient. Many of the young people with whom I worked left foster care at 18 and had been out on their own for a year or two: despite every effort to stay employed and make enough money to live on, they found themselves homeless and with no where to turn. As a youth program director, I was frustrated by the lack of support that communities offer these young people.
Adolescents constitute a major segment of the youngsters the child welfare system serves. Most youths enter out-of-home care because of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Others have run away from home or have no homes. Like our own sons and daughters, youths in out-of-home care need assistance to make the transition to independence. Vulnerable young people in foster care need special help and support. They have histories of significant abuse, neglect, and multiple placements that greatly compromise their prospects for successful independence. These teenagers often find themselves truly on their own, with few, if any, financial resources; limited education, training and employment options; no place to live; and little or no support from family, friends, and community. The resulting cost to the youths themselves, their communities, and society at large is unacceptably and increasingly high.
Talking with people all over the country every day, I see that I am only one of many people asking this question: why wouldn’t we, as communities acting in the capacity of parents to these children, ensure that adequate resources were invested in their transition to adult life? We have all seen the many news articles, media reports, and research studies that make the situation painfully clear. We must do more to support our nation’s foster children during these challenging years. Most importantly, what young people themselves have to say about the transition to adulthood should guide our actions and motivate all of us to work together for positive change.
WHO ARE ADOLESCENTS AGING OUT OF FOSTER CARE?
- At the end of 1996, there were 530,912 children living in out of home care, family foster care, kinship care, or residential care.1
- Currently, teens represent approximately 30 percent of the foster care population.2
- Each year, over 20,000 of these older youths “age out” of foster care and must make the transition to self-sufficiency.3
PROBLEMS FACED BY ADOLESCENTS AGING OUT OF FOSTER CARE
Young people who age out of the child welfare system are not safe. They experience great risk in terms of their emotional, economic, and physical safety. They are more likely to become homeless, to experience early parenthood, and to be victims of violence than their mainstream peers. Less than half will have graduated from high school before leaving foster care, and few will have the opportunity to attend college. This constellation of challenges to safety and economic opportunity creates a formidable barrier to young people forced to make it on their own.
Young people themselves report that the transition to independence and the expectation of self-sufficiency is often very rapid, sometimes unplanned for and unexpected, and results in their feeling “dumped” by the system that cared for them.
Loss of family connections and multiple foster care placements hinder the ability of foster youth to achieve permanence. Many people believe that adolescents are not adoptable and that children over twelve years old are seldom adopted. The reality is that thousands of teens are adopted. Adoption, however, is not an option for many young people. We must acknowledge the reality of independence for over 20,000 emancipating teens each year who carry the burden of family rejection and multiple placements with them into adulthood, and may experience difficulty in attachment to others and to the community as a result. No matter what the permanency goal is for a teenager, each foster youth will eventually take on the responsibilities of independent adulthood; all of them need extra support and assistance in order to succeed.
Young people report that they need relationships with people who care about them and who are there for them consistently. They say that support and services offered during the critical transitional years make all the difference in the world to helping them make it on their own.
Young people must develop positive personal and social functioning, and must have access to health services, education, and employment to achieve successful adulthood. The experiences that result in children being placed in foster care, as well as the experience of foster care itself, can create barriers to achieving well-being in any or all of these areas.
Young people who have left the foster care system say that disruptions in education caused by early emancipation, insufficient preparation for the workplace, lack of access to health care, and the immediate struggle for day to day survival after leaving care make planning and even hoping for a good future very, very difficult.
When I talk to you about the challenges facing these young people, I am not just talking about faceless statistics: I am talking about young people whom I know and care about, like my friend Rose. Rose was in foster care for most of her life, and was living in a group home when she turned 18 and had to leave the program. She is an articulate, caring, intelligent young woman, and I met her because she was volunteering at the youth agency where she had last been cared for so that she could help other foster youth. At the same time, she was struggling desperately to balance a job, a place to live, and going to college. I remember talking to her last winter and finding out that she had been sleeping every night on the bathroom floor because that was the only place the heat worked in the apartment she was living in. I remember her asking me if she should drop out of college and just work because she was so tired and having trouble keeping up with class work. It’s young people like Rose that deserve more of our support and effort to ensure that they have a chance to attain positive life goals.
(See Attachment 1 Chart below, Summary of Outcomes for Youth Formerly Served By the Foster Care System.)
PROGRAMS AND PRACTICES THAT HELP
There are existing policies, programs and services at the federal, state and community levels that make a difference for emancipating foster youth and for youth who have left the foster care system. We must be able to extend these critical services and replicate successful program strategies in order to ensure that all youth leaving foster care have the opportunity to succeed. Expanding the time over which services can be delivered to age 21 would make it possible for more youth to be served by these and similar programs.
Some states have implemented policies for serving youth over 18 that include guiding criteria for a discharge plan and services to be delivered during the transitional period. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the states of Michigan, Maryland and New York have all established policies to ensure that many youth needing services beyond age 18 will receive them, and that emancipation occurs with support. More states must be encouraged and supported in establishing similar model policies that help youth emancipate safely. California, for example, which serves over 100,000 foster children each year, is only able to offer support through age 18.
Improved policies and extended services have resulted in more successful outcomes for children who emancipate from the foster care system.
- One of the few available research studies to capture post-emancipation experiences of foster children was conducted by the Westat corporation in 1989-1990. This study showed that youth who received support in order to attend post-secondary educational and vocational programs were more likely to obtain living-wage employment. Youth who received extended assistance were also less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system, and less likely to become homeless or to join the welfare rolls after leaving care.4
- In New York, the Children’s Village’s Work Appreciation for Youth (WAY) Scholarship program offers work experience, individual counseling, work ethics training, tutoring, financial incentives for saving, and a five-year commitment to teenagers in foster care. Over the past 15 years, this program has provided comprehensive support to the highest risk foster youth in residential treatment. Longitudinal evaluation of the one-to-one support and intensive aftercare provided by WAY has shown that more than 75% of participants graduate from high school or complete a GED, and over half go on to post-secondary education. It is important to note that foster youth enrolled in this program usually need more than four years to complete secondary education. WAY Scholars have very low rates of arrest in early adulthood (8%), and none of the 300 youth who have been through the program is on welfare.5
For less than ten dollars per day per youth, WAY makes a substantial difference in young people’s ability to complete high school, obtain living-wage employment, and achieve a safe, successful transition to adulthood.
- The Workforce Strategy Center in New York has been working with communities all over the U.S. to strengthen support for disadvantaged youth to complete high school and attend post-secondary educational programs. Their research has shown that even one to two years of community college can make the difference between economic self-sufficiency and poverty.6
- Dr. Edmund Mech, a researcher specializing in studies of older children in foster care, was able to demonstrate that young people who participate in supervised apartment-based independent living programs are more successful in learning independent living skills.7 We need more apartment programs, like the one operated by Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati, that give foster youth a chance to learn and practice skills in real-life settings. The Bridges program in Los Angeles also offers apartment living, counseling, and life skills training to young people both before they leave foster care and for some time after. To complete the web of support, we need programs like Living Independently for Tomorrow (LIFT), run by Residential Youth Services in Alexandria Virginia, that offer transitional living services to youth who find themselves homeless after leaving foster care.
- Programs like the California Youth Connection, the Independent Living Youth Advisory Board in Maryland, and the Foster Care Youth Partnership in New York City provide crucial opportunities for youth to participate in developing independent living programs and to have their voice heard about the issues that concern them. Opportunities for youth to be involved in these activities not only give them a chance to learn important leadership skills, but also contribute toward a stronger system of foster care and independent living services in the state.
- Young people report that family or family-like ties are critical, even if they are unable to live with family members. Services that help establish lifetime connections, or that support re-establishing or strengthening family ties are an important part of a comprehensive approach to supporting emancipating youth. Examples of promising programs in this area include a demonstration project funded by the Department of Health and Human Services that was implemented by Four Oaks of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. This program helped young people who were unlikely to return home establish strong youth-adult relationships with either extended family members or another involved adult. Another promising practice has been modeled by the Casey Family Program and Casey Family Services, both of which provide family foster care and commit to serving and maintaining relationships with foster youth up to at least age 25.
- Young people say that an adult mentor who is there for them when times get tough, and who is a consistent source of support, make one of the most important contributions to their ability to achieve successful adulthood. My friend Alfred in California can attest to the truth of this. For several years, Alfred spent each Christmas walking back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge–he did not have family to spend the holiday with. Since that lonely and difficult time, Alfred has become very close to the director of his independent living program, on whom he can depend for advice, support, and a seat at the table for Christmas dinner.
Increasing interest and emerging proposals present a significant opportunity for us to work together and effect changes that will make a positive difference in the lives of our foster youth–and that will help to create a future where they have the chance to make a difference in the lives of others.
CWLA POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
The federal government plays an important role in ensuring that young people exiting foster care make a successful transition to adulthood. Congress passed the bipartisan Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 to ensure that more children in foster care would have safe and permanent homes. While most children and youths in foster care can eventually return to their biological families, many can not. ASFA makes it easier for many children to move more quickly into permanent adoptive homes or other permanent living arrangements. Adoption, however, is not always possible for many older children in foster care. Congress should now address our obligation to these youths. We should do all that we can to help these youths achieve self -sufficiency.The “Transition to Adulthood Program Act of 1999,” H.R. 671, recently introduced by Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD), addresses many of the issues. We support this bill and urge Congress to pass this bill this year. This legislation offers access to critical foster care maintenance and other supports to youths up to age 21; makes assistance available to promote education, training or employment; promotes interagency collaboration to advance self-sufficiency of youths aging out of foster care; updates funding resources, asset limits and the distribution formula for the Title IV-E Independent Living Services program and provides tax credits to employers who hire former foster children.
President Clinton’s budget also addresses the needs of these youths. The budget proposes $280 million in new funding over five years to support an initiative to help the more than 20,000 children who reach age 18 and leave foster care each year. The Administration’s initiative would increase funding for the Title IV-E Independent Living program, establish a new competitive grant program for states to help youths with their living expenses, increase support for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Transitional Living Program and give states the option of providing Medicaid coverage to children leaving foster care up to age 21. We support the Administration’s initiative and think it takes a major step in the right direction.
We are grateful that both the Administration and Congress have begun to address the needs of these youths. Our recommendations outlined below support additional resources and other improvements to better address the needs of these young people.
The Child Welfare League of America recommends that all states extend Title IV-E assistance to youths up to age 21.
Current policy for Title IV-E Foster Care Maintenance and Administration allows reimbursement to the states for eligible youth up to age 19. Medicaid coverage for children receiving foster care assistance generally ends at age 18. Many foster youth are forced to leave care at age 18, while they are still in high school, because they will not graduate by their 19th birthday. Many others find themselves unable to sustain stable housing and employment because they do not have any adult support during these critical years.
In order to ensure that young people have a fair chance to achieve productive citizenship, we must invest in their care during the transitional years. An extension of Title IV-E assistance would result both in reduced human cost for youth who are abandoned by their only source of support and in reduced financial burden to the homeless, welfare, mental health, and health systems. This extension would also ensure that these youth would maintain their Medicaid eligibility.
- H.R. 671, the Transition to Adulthood Program Act, gives states the option of extending Title IV-E assistance to former foster youth up to the age of 21 as long as they are working or enrolled in educational activities and have a plan to become completely self-sufficient. Funds could be used for programs designed to promote the education, training or employment of the child. At a state’s option, these youths would maintain their eligibility for Medicaid.
- The Administration’s FY 2000 budget proposes a new capped mandatory program of competitive grants for states to support living expenses of youth who otherwise lose Title IV-E assistance at age 18. The proposal includes $5 million for FY 2000 increasing to $20 million by 2003. The Administration’s budget also provides $50 million to give states the option to extend Medicaid coverage for these youths up to age 21.
CWLA recommends that funding for the Title IV-E Independent Living program be increased to match current foster care populations and to ensure that states have adequate resources to provide the skills training that young people must have to succeed.
In addition to meeting children’s basic needs for food, shelter, and care, we must ensure that young people receive training and support for acquiring the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for independence. Funding to meet this need has been available under the Title IV-E Independent Living program since 1987. This program provides specific support for independent living skill development, job training, and preparation for employment. This program has been shown to increase the ability of foster youth to manage their money, access community resources, and find a job.
Funding for the Independent Living program, capped at $70 million, has not kept pace with the population of youth eligible to receive the services. Current allocations to the states remain based on their 1984 population, and overall funds have not been increased since 1992. Increasing the funding for this program will allow services to be offered to more of the youth who are supposed to receive them. We support at least a 50% increase in funding to the states for independent living services. Consensus exists to update the allocation formula for distribution of funds to states that takes foster care population changes into consideration. The current formula relies on figures from 1984 and does not meet the needs of many states which now serve many more youth. No state should lose funds through the reallocation process.
In addition, funding should support the completion of longitudinal research to determine self-sufficiency outcomes of youth leaving care.
- The Administration’s FY 2000 budget proposal increases funding from $70 million to $105 million for the Title IV-E Independent Living program.
- H.R. 671, the Transition to Adulthood Program Act, updates funding resources, asset limits and the distribution formula for the Title IV-E Independent Living Services program.
CWLA recommends that funding for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Transitional Living program be increased so that those foster youth who do become homeless are able to get help when they need it the most.
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Transitional Living Program provides critical safety net support services for homeless youth, including many foster care youths. Current funding allows 78 programs nationwide to provide a variety of services to homeless youth age 16 to 21, including residential care for up to 18 months; information and counseling in basic life skills; interpersonal skill building; educational advancement; job attainment skills; and physical and mental health care.
- The Administration’s FY 2000 budget proposal to provide $20 million for FY 2000 for this program, an increase of $5 million.
CWLA recommends that safe, stable, affordable housing be made available to each youth emancipating from care.
No young person should be emancipated from foster care to homelessness. Forty percent of the nation’s homeless are former foster youth. Young people who leave foster care and go to college should have access to housing during holidays and over summer breaks. Other youth who are still pursuing their high school education or who are entering the world of work should also have access to stable living arrangements during the transitional period. We recommend that the Department of Housing and Urban Development work in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services to strengthen housing programs and services to help this vulnerable population of foster children. The investment of funds to support these youth through life skills programs, independent living programs and transitional apartment programs would more than pay for itself in reduced future dependence on government assistance.
- H.R. 671, the Transition to Adulthood Program Act, promotes interagency collaboration to ensure that the housing needs of these youths are addressed.
We strongly urge the Committee to take decisive action to help these young people right now. The challenges facing children and youths who emancipate from the foster care system are challenges that we have an opportunity and an obligation to help them overcome. It is in their best interests, and it is in the best interests of each one of us for young people to make healthy, safe, contributing transitions to adulthood. Thank you for all of your hard work so far, and we look forward to working with you as you consider this important legislation.
1 Child Welfare League of America. (1998). State agency survey. Washington, DC: Author.
2 Child Welfare League of America. (1998). State agency survey. Washington, DC: Author.
3 Cook, R. (1992). A national evaluation of Title IV-E foster care independent living programs for youth, phase 2 final report. Rockville, MD: Westat, Inc.
4 Cook, R. (1992).
5 Children’s Village, Evaluation of WAY Program.
6 Gruber, D. (1999). Education Pays. The Workforce Strategy Center: New York, NY.
7 Mech, E., et al.(1994) Life skills knowledge: A survey of foster adolescents in three placement settings. Special issue: Preparing foster youth for adulthood. Children and Youth Services Review, 16 (3-4), 181-200.
Summary of Outcomes for Youth Formerly Served By the Foster Care System
Child Welfare League of America 1999
This study documents the experiences of youth who emancipated from foster care.
30% reported having no housing or having to move every week.
At follow-up,45% of 21 year olds had completed high school
75% were working, with an average income of $10,000.
31% of youth had been arrested while 26% had served jail time.
40% reported a pregnancy since discharge, most were unplanned.
Almost 40%received AFDC or general assistance funds.
The study examined the impact of independent living services on enhancing the ability of foster youth to be self-sufficient, 2.5 to 4 years post-discharge.
25% reported at least one night of homelessness.
54% had completed high school.
38%maintained employment for one year.
No data reported.
60% of the women had given birth.
40% were a cost to the community.
Alexander & Huberty (1993)
The study was conducted with a sample of former foster youth from The Villages in Indiana, with an average age of 22 years
The average number of moves during the last five years was7.4.
27% had some college or vocational training.
49% were employed, compared with 67% of 18-24 year olds in the general population.
Almost 42%had been arrested
No data reported.
14%received assistance in the form of food stamps, general assistance, and/or AFDC.
Courtney & Piliavin (1998)
The study looked at foster youth transitions to adulthood, 12 to 18 months post-discharge.
12% reported living on the street or in a shelter since discharge.
At 12 to 18 months post-discharge,55% had completed high school.
50% were employed, & the average weekly wage ranged from$31 to $450.
18%experienced post-discharge incarceration
No data reported.
32%received public assistance.