Sacred B. Huff studies law at George Washington University School of Law and interned with the Legal Clinic in summer 2017. Following her internship, she wrote this piece reflecting upon challenges faced by youth aging out of the foster care system, with a particular focus on housing instability and homelessness.
“Abandoned All Over Again”:
A Discussion on Aging Out of Foster Care & Homelessness
Written By: Sacred B. Huff
Foster care is something that many of us may have heard of, but possess only a vague understanding of how the system actually works. Television shows such as The Fosters paint a picture of the most ideal scenario: children are placed in a foster home where eventually they will be adopted by a permanent and loving family.[i] Yet, this ideal scenario is not always the reality. Many foster children remain in the system residing in temporary foster homes, group homes, or residential facilities until they reach the maximum age to be eligible for foster care services, commonly referred to as “aging out.” Many states age out their foster youth at eighteen years old, but at least twenty states and the District of Columbia allow foster care services to extend to twenty-one years old.[ii]
A common service that states use to prepare their youth for the transition into adulthood is the Independent Living Program (“ILP”), which offers supportive services such as lessons on life skills and career preparation. ILPs may entail older foster youth residing in state-sponsored apartments to practice living on their own while still receiving supportive services. Once foster youth reach the maximum age, all supportive services end and the youth are expected to transition to independence (regardless of their actual financial capability to do so). Sadly, the transition does not always happen so smoothly. Youth are frequently aged-out while unemployed and prior to completing their education.[iii] Furthermore, participation in ILP apartments is not guaranteed and quite limited; many foster youth are unable to utilize this service at all, leaving them completely inexperienced in budgeting a household and ill-prepared to obtain their own housing. This problem is worsened by the reality that these young adults usually lack any form of a family safety net. Therefore, once states discontinue supporting the youth, they often find themselves completely on their own as early as eighteen years old. Without adequate preparation and without a safety net, aged-out foster youth frequently end up couch surfing or sleeping on the streets.[iv]
Taylor’s[v] story is one of many that demonstrates the failures of the transition out of foster care. Taylor has resided in multiple foster homes in the D.C. area since she was thirteen years old, and prior to aging out she was living in a residential facility in Maryland. Taylor was never given the option to participate in ILP, but when she turned twenty-one, she was still required to leave the facility where she was residing because twenty-one was the maximum age of eligibility for that program. Having nowhere to go, Taylor slept on the floor of her cousin’s apartment until her cousin stated that she could no longer afford having Taylor live with her. After Taylor’s cousin asked her to leave, Taylor went through the shelter application process for families and moved to the D.C. General Family Shelter, a shut-down hospital turned homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.[vi] This is where Taylor currently resides.
I met Taylor while interning at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. After meeting her, I could not help but reflect on my own story. I am a former foster youth who aged out of care in Madison County, Alabama. I had the opportunity to complete ILP, and I believe the apartment provided by ILP allowed me to avoid sleeping on the streets and was helpful in my ability to finish college. Even though many improvements are needed to make this program truly effective at preparing foster youth for emancipation, at a minimum, having my own apartment meant stability from moving from home to home (which happened so often I lost count). On the downside, many of the supportive services that are supposed to accompany placement in the program are a myth. Frequently, I was told to sign a document agreeing that my caseworker and I worked on career goals – yet, “worked on career goals” really meant that we drove around and put in job applications at fast food restaurants even if those restaurants were not hiring. Whenever I was adamant in discussing my intentions to finish school and follow my dream of becoming a lawyer, I was often advised to “be more realistic.” Nonetheless, despite the flaws of ILP, I was grateful to have my own place to live instead of depending on friends or distant family members to allow me to spend the night. To learn Taylor did not have the same opportunity, I wondered what real chance she had to avoid homelessness. How did the District imagine that she would be able to provide for herself when she was not even employed when she aged out?
Stories such as Taylor’s are not a rarity. It is well documented that youth aging out of foster care are more likely to experience homelessness than their non-foster youth peers.[vii] Such statistics present a troubling paradox: youth are removed from their familial homes (most commonly due to neglect or abuse[viii]) in an effort to bolster their chances for “better” outcomes, but placement in foster care correlates with higher rates of homelessness, incarceration, and poverty.[ix] One would expect state and local governments to adequately care for the youth in its custody to improve such poor correlations. Regardless of whether foster youth are aged out at eighteen or twenty-one, there is clearly a time clock counting down for states to prepare them for emancipation.
So why do so many aged out foster youth experience homelessness after leaving state care? Advocates and legal representatives point to a variety of explanations. In high-rent cities such as Washington D.C., the lack of affordable housing plays a major role in aged-out foster youth becoming homeless. Yet the lack of affordable housing only compounds the issues already afflicting this population, such as high levels of unemployment and low levels of educational attainment.[x] In addition to that, even when foster youth receive ILP services, the quality and effectiveness of such programs are questionable, as little empirical data exists about the standards and long-term success of such programs.[xi] One study showed that states with extended foster care (i.e. allowing youth to receive services until twenty-one) had lower rates of homelessness among its aged-out youth compared to states that emancipate its youth at eighteen years old. The same study revealed, however, that once services were cut off at twenty-one, the difference in homelessness rates diminished.[xii] This may suggest that extending foster care without ensuring that the quality of ILP services is adequate to prepare the youth for independence merely delays the risk of homelessness as opposed to actually decreasing it.
Another explanation advocates point to is the underlying trouble with youth involved with foster care: the lack of a family safety net. Most young adults will need some form of help after they leave their families’ homes. This may take place in the form of help paying rent, having someone co-sign for a loan, or even temporarily moving back to the family home. Young adults who have no history of foster care may have such resources readily available through their parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. For current and former foster youth, these resources are likely to be non-existent. Without family ties, there may not be anyone for these youth to turn to for a helping hand. Accordingly, states should serve as some form of a safety net for this population because states essentially serve as the “parents” for foster youth. To quite the contrary, many states are not even keeping track of their aged-out youth; longitudinal studies following the progress of aged-out youth are scant.[xiii] This is troubling because not tracking the progress of aged-out youth leaves states susceptible to continuing ineffective programs and ill-equipped to understand which programs are working and why. The lack of tracking coupled with their often ill-fated outcomes – higher risks of homelessness, high unemployment rates, and low educational attainment –indicate that state governments are “bad parents” for not living up to their duties of caring for youth who were taken into state custody mainly due to a legally found lack of care, quite an ironic reality.
It may be tempting to accept the poor outcomes for aged-out youth as just unfortunate circumstances beyond anyone’s control, but many advocates – including myself – are hopeful that with a radical approach to how foster youth are exited from care, positive change can occur. As someone who grew up and aged out of the foster care system, the biggest change I would like to see is a newly established program specifically designed for foster youth seeking higher education. Instead of pigeon-holing foster youth into low-wage jobs, such a program should allow and encourage foster youth to obtain professional careers. This may be accomplished by allowing youth to receive ILP services (including residing in state-sponsored apartments) for as long as the youth are making satisfactory progress towards completing an Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or other professional degrees. Much more discussion is needed to determine what “satisfactory progress” commands, but for now, the most important thing to note is that the maximum age of eligibility should not be set at an arbitrary limit of twenty-one years old. Instead, the length of eligibility should be tailored around the completion of a college education, and the program should include supportive services that address the unique obstacles faced by foster youth that hinder educational achievement. In my own circumstance, I was often pressured to pursue a trade instead of attending college based on the reasoning that I could have finished the trade program and entered the workforce prior to aging out. There is no suggestion that pursuing a trade is undesirable; in fact, this suggested program may accommodate those who choose to pursue this option. However, it is troubling when foster youth are pipelined to this career path and strongly discouraged from having other goals. Although such advice may be well-intentioned (and maybe even logical), it instills a self-fulfilling prophecy into foster youth that they are unable to succeed at universities and professional schools. After all, only three percent of former foster youth graduate from college.[xiv] Establishing a program that emphasizes obtaining a degree will plant a new seed of realization in foster youth that they have the options and resources to aim beyond their circumstances and defy all statistics.
Opponents may counter that allowing foster youth to receive ILP services during their entire pursuit of education may create a mentality of dependency on the government. That is unlikely, and in fact, the opposite may be true. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report states, “[A] lack of stable housing can impede efforts to become self-sufficient. It is difficult for young people to pursue education and training or to find and keep a job if their housing is unstable.”[xv] Therefore, allowing foster youth to have secured housing while pursuing their educational goals promotes independence by providing the means for these young adults to climb out of poverty and break the cycles that produced their need to be placed in state care in the first place. For youth who were involuntarily placed and raised in state custody, it only makes sense that states ensure that the foster youth have the proper resources and training to grow into independent contributing members of society. As Frederick Douglass noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”[xvi] Unfortunately, former foster youth, such as Taylor and myself, feel that the system only left us further broken, not repaired.
I asked Taylor what is one thing that she wanted me to say when I told her story. Taylor told me she feels “abandoned all over again,” first, by her biological family and now by the government who took responsibility over her. Nonetheless, we are hopeful that when stories such as ours are told, we will inspire social workers, child welfare service providers, and policymakers to make effective changes to the foster care system and especially to the aging out process.
[ii] Teresa Wiltz, States Tackle ‘Aging Out’ of Foster Care, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Mar. 25, 2015, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/3/25/states-tackle-aging-out-of-foster-care.
[iv] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care: A Review of the Literature and Program Typology 3-4 (2012), www.huduser.gov/publications/pdf/housingfostercare_literaturereview_0412_v2.pdf.
[v] Name has been altered to maintain confidentiality.
[vi] DeNeen L. Brown, What It Feels Like to Live in D.C. General Shelter, Washington Post, July 15, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/07/15/what-it-feels-like-to-live-in-d-c-general-shelter/?utm_term=.30d241bfc8d4.
[vii] Amy Dworsky et al., Homelessness During the Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood, 103 Am. J. Pub. Health, 318, 318 (2013).
[viii] For example, in Washington, D.C., the most common reason for placement in foster care is neglect or abuse. DC Child and Family Services Agency, Annual Public Report FY 2016 25 (2017), https://cfsa.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/cfsa/publication/attachments/FY2016-CFSA-APR.pdf.
[ix] Marsha S. Davis & Erik W. Burris, Transitioning Foster Care Youth and Their Risk for Homelessness: Policy, Program, and Budgeting Shortcomings, 3 Hum. Welfare 22, 24 (2014).
[xi] Patrick J. Fowler et al., Homeless and Aging Out of Foster Care: A National Comparison of Child Welfare-Involved Adolescents, 77 Child. Youth Services Rev. 27, 28 (2017).
[xii] Id. at 28.
[xiii] Id. at 28.
[xv]U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, supra note iv, at 8.
[xvi] Charles M. Blow, Fathers’ Sons and Brothers’ Keepers, N.Y. Times, Feb. 28, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/01/opinion/blow-fathers-sons-and-brothers-keepers.html.