Aging Out of Foster Care: Why It Happens and How Social Workers Can Help
Youth often exit the foster care system unprepared to face a world that demands basic skills they were never taught by parents or guardians. Social workers can help bridge that gap by offering tangible resources, emotional support, and even digital direction.
An 18-year-old sleeps in a doorway of a public building with nothing but a tattered blanket to shield him from the cold wind. He took little more than the clothes on his back when his foster parents demanded that he leave home. He hasn’t been in touch with his biological parents in years. None of his friends’ parents will allow him to spend a night on their sofa. And he’s unfamiliar with the nearest homeless shelter.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this one are all too common.
More than 23,000 children will age out of foster care in the United States yearly, according to the National Foster Youth Institute, an organization comprising foster youth, foster care alumni, and members of Congress who seek to transform the child welfare system.
“Aging out” generally refers to an individual in foster care who has reached the age of 18 but hasn’t achieved some type of permanency, whether that be reunification with a parent or adoption by, or permanent legal custody with, another caregiver. However, the age at which an individual exits foster care varies, as many states provide extensions of foster care services until an individual turns 21.
Why It Happens
“Youth who have experienced abuse and/or neglect that resulted in foster care involvement in childhood begin their adulthood without ever establishing a consistent connection or bond with, or support from, a caregiver,” says Jessica Hayden, LSW, social work supervisor at the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia. “Without this safety net—and without the system to provide one once they turn 18 or 21—these youth are at a disadvantage simply because they are on their own.”
Regardless of the age at which it occurs, aging out can bring with it a variety of basic obstacles, including poor independent living skills or simply a lack of knowledge of resources that are available.
“No one has taught them how to grocery shop or do laundry. They’ve never been on a job interview,” says Katherine Puckett, MSW, clinical supervisor for YVLifeSet, a program of Youth Villages, a Memphis-headquartered organization with sites in 20 states.
More serious challenges can range from educational deficits, unemployment, and homelessness to pregnancy, PTSD, and involvement in the criminal justice system.
“There are definitely children who—once they turn 18—are cut off from the programs that were benefiting them,” says Nicole Hirschman, senior foster care caseworker at Salvation Army Children’s Services in Allentown, PA. “They do become homeless. They get into drugs and alcohol—falling back into the problems of their biological families—or sometimes end up incarcerated.”
Caught in a Cycle
“There’s a high number of pregnancies with 18-year-old females getting back into the patterns that led their parents to be in the foster care system,” she says.
In the last few years, Salvation Army Children’s Services has received increasing foster care referrals for individuals aged 16 to 18 who are coming from residential treatment facilities, according to Hirschman. Counties struggle to find a home for such individuals, who often experience behavioral health issues. The individual remains in the residential treatment facility only to be turned out later.
“Then when they turn 18, the facility says, ‘Good luck; you’re no longer able to reside here,’” Hirschman says. “That’s when we see a lot of the teenage youth start living on the streets, trying to get into a shelter, and trying to locate families who didn’t have anything to do with them previously. It’s very sad.”
Consider the following additional sobering statistics from the National Foster Care Institute:
• “After reaching the age of 18, 20% of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.”
• “Only 1 out of every 2 foster kids who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by the age of 24.”
• “There is less than a 3% chance for children who have aged out of foster care to earn a college degree at any point in their life.”
• “Seven out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21.”
• “The percentage of children who age out of the foster care system and still suffer from the direct effects of PTSD [is] 25%.”
Making a Difference
A nonprofit organization appointed as counsel and guardian ad litem in cases of dependent children and youth in the Family Court Division of Philadelphia County’s Court of Common Pleas, the Support Center for Child Advocates recruits, trains, and supports volunteer attorneys who provide pro bono legal services. Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, the Support Center for Child Advocates pairs volunteer attorneys and staff social workers both within and outside the courtroom to ensure client well-being.
“The advocacy work of each team varies, depending on the needs of each child,” says Hayden, who is among three supervisors who guide the organization’s social workers in youth case management. “But generally, all efforts are made to secure a stable and nurturing living environment for each client, obtain appropriate educational and/or behavioral health supports, ensure specific medical attention is received and/or accommodations are made, and connect clients to other meaningful community resources.”
The team not only ensures the interests of clients by attending permanency meetings and dependency hearings but also by collaborating with school officials, behavioral health providers, medical practitioners, and caregivers. Data from psychological, medical, and educational evaluations are used to comprehensively address client needs as well as to inform advocacy efforts.
While the Support Center for Child Advocates is a direct service provider, it does collaborate with other agencies to address systemic issues.
The Support Center for Child Advocates’ Empowering Older Youth Program seeks to address clients’ issues related to aging out, including mediating housing and landlord-tenant disputes as well as providing access to health care, education, and career development. In addition, the program supports those who are eligible under Pennsylvania Act 91 to reopen their dependency case before turning 21, if they aged out 90 days before their 18th birthday.
“Our ability to do so,” Hayden says, “greatly impacts the lives of clients who possibly didn’t want to be court-involved or a part of the foster care system when they were turning 18, but later needed and wanted those supports before turning 21.”
To reduce the risk of an individual aging out without appropriate support prior to the termination of court supervision, teams begin attending monthly transition meetings when an individual reaches age 16.
“These meetings address the client’s permanency goal; placement and housing options; educational achievements, goals, and opportunities; behavioral health resources and services; and other community resources, including ties with members of the community,” Hayden says. “Our role as the child advocate team in these meetings is to ensure our client’s voice is heard, gather resources relevant to the client’s short-term and long-term goals, and ensure objectives are followed up on between each meeting.”
The nonprofit Youth Villages seeks to help children from infancy to young adulthood and their families to attain successful lives. Even after a client reaches age 18, Youth Villages works to find a familial connection, such as aunts, uncles, or cousins.
“We believe that children are best raised by families or by the support of families. Maybe it’s not always a biological family—it can be friends or grandparents,” says Puckett, who manages four specialists who provide services to clients of Youth Village’s YVLifeSet program. “We do whatever we can do to foster that relationship moving forward in their life.”
While Youth Villages employees provide direct services in some states, partnerships are used in other states to enhance capacity. In Pennsylvania, for example, YVLifeSet engages partnerships in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Utilizing a community-based model, YVLifeSet seeks to meet young people wherever they are located, be it at home or a community center. Staff use clinical interventions to meet youth-identified goals. To ensure that specialists spend significant time helping each young client reach his or her goals, caseloads are limited to eight to 10 at a time. A 24/7 on-call process means social workers are face to face with clients whenever necessary.
“If they have an emergency in the middle of the night, they can reach us so that we help, no matter what time it is. Many times they’re not quite sure who to reach out to,” Puckett says. “They know we’re there to help them. It really builds engagement and helps them to see that we’re always there.”
Puckett recalls an occasion in which a young woman was stranded at a gas station with nothing but her dying mobile phone. YVLifeSet staff received her call, picked her up, and took her to a safe place.
In addition, the staff helps clients foster relationships—whether with friends, families, or schools—to ensure that a support network is in place after YVLifeSet is no longer involved.
In the beginning of the relationship, the social worker takes on a teaching role with the client, Puckett notes. Later, clients are encouraged to become hands-on in meeting their own needs.
Puckett fondly recalls her first YVLifeSet client—a young man who was living in his car because his foster family kicked him out at age 18. Contacted by concerned school officials who thought he would fail to graduate, Puckett took the case. Her first order of business was to get the young man into a safe housing situation. When his friend’s grandmother offered to let him stay at her home through graduation, Puckett accompanied him to the home to establish ground rules. Puckett happily reports that her former client is now a successful forklift operator in another state.
Says Puckett: “He’s one of the reasons I keep doing this [work] and dedicated my social work career to this population.”
— Nadine M. Hasenecz, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer who lives in Bethlehem, PA.
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS FOR AGING OUT AND OTHER VULNERABLE YOUTH
Youth Matters: Philly (YMP) offers vulnerable youth in Philadelphia a high-tech way to access resources available to them.
Designed for those aged 14 to 26 who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, the web-based application provides youth with access to a searchable database of more than 350 social and health resources in Philadelphia. A map function uses geocoding to determine which resources are in closest proximity.
Because it’s computer based, youth can access YMP on computers at schools, libraries, and drop-in centers. If using a public computer, users who locate a resource of interest can send it to themselves via text for future use. (While not an app that can be purchased in a smartphone’s app store, YMP is mobile-optimized so that it’s viewable on a phone or tablet. It can be saved as a widget on a phone or tablet so that it looks like any purchased app.)
“Many cities, including Philadelphia, do not have a centralized place that provides young adults information on resources related to addressing their experiences of homelessness, unstable housing, or myriad other issues. Therefore, many struggle to find and access basic necessities, like food and shelter,” says Johanna Greeson, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who collaborated on YMP with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and Hack4Impact, Penn’s technology incubator that creates software for nonprofit organizations. “Filling this gap with a successful, user-friendly, mobile web-based application may help ensure that this valuable information gets to the young adults who need it most, in the most timely and efficient way possible.”