On September 13, 2021, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event, On Their Own Two Feet: Helping Foster Youth Transition to Adulthood, examined how to improve outcomes for young adults in the child welfare system.
The panel included Ruth White of the National Center of Housing and Child Welfare, Eric Gilmore of Immerse Arkansas, and Tim Keller of Gen Justice to discuss how to assist youth that are aging out of the foster-care system. During opening remarks, Naomi Schaefer Riley from AEI discussed the distaste that youth hold towards the foster care system due to their awareness of the price put on their care. After youth turn 18, many have declined the offer to stay in the system because “they want nothing to do with a system that has treated them transactionally.” However, when youth age out of the system at 18 years old without assistance, they fall into unhealthy survival methods because they lack the tools needed to transition into adulthood. The panel discussed policies that included intervention methods that will address this issue.
Gilmore spoke on his organization’s focus on assisting 14–24 year olds become whole adults. He recognizes three components of whole adulthood, unconditional relationships, tools for needs and dreams, and a vision for a restored future. Gilmore detailed an unconditional relationship as a reliable figure that supports youth through any decision. This reliable figure should provide tools, without a deadline, to tackle both needs and dreams. In order for those tools to be elastic, there must be a clear and positive vision from the youth or the reliable figure.
Keller focused on the idea of “Fostering Independence Accounts” or FIA. FIAs are cash accounts for children in foster care that will be available when they leave the system. These accounts would allow the system to provide youth resources and keep them on the system’s radar. The point of FIAs is to incentivize milestones during youth’s time in foster care instead of concentrating on age. For example, money would be added into the FIA when a youth graduate or gets a job. This creates an incentive for youth to stay in the foster-care system past the age of 18, in order for them to receive funds for as long as possible. Keller states, “Kids that are aging into life, aren’t ready to age into life.” This program is designed to get them ready.
White detailed the housing support and funding that are already available to youth aging out of the system, like Title IV-E and the foster youth independent program. White made the distinction that housing support is currently unsuccessful because of the lack of synchronization, predictability, and transparency. For example, the Foster Youth Independence (FYI) Program provided no predictability for housing vouchers when youth aged out of the system. White argued that there needs to be synchronization between housing and child welfare. The current programs that exist need to be utilized appropriately because the failed system is homelessness.
Lastly, the panel went into a Q&A segment, answering important questions such as “How do you increase transparency and predictability for young people aging out of the system?”. Keller answered this question by stating that federal law requires caseworkers to sit down with youth and explain their options. However, because this can be biased depending on the caseworker, Keller suggests that caseworkers endure consistent training, so there is no variability. He even went to far as saying that maybe youth shouldn’t age out but instead leave the system when they complete a certain milestone, circling back to his point about the unimportance of age.