MORE than 35 percent of foster youths in Washington experience homelessness within one year after aging out of care, according to a recent study by the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Asking our most vulnerable youngsters to fend for themselves at age 18 is both immoral and fiscally shortsighted.
Research, data and economic facts tell us the solution is to offer extended foster care, allowing young adults to remain in safe housing until 21. Over the past eight years, Washington state has successfully implemented policy and programs that provide extended foster care to young adults pursuing their education and those struggling to find employment.
However, two critical groups are still excluded: those who work more than 80 hours per month, and those who have a significant medical condition. Two state proposals, HB 2335 and SB 6101, would change that.
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Imagine a young adult who is struggling to maintain stability after being moved to dozens of foster homes throughout his or her childhood. Against all odds, he or she manages to secure a part-time job, and impresses a supervisor.
Unfortunately, that young adult has to make the difficult choice between accepting a promotion and remaining in stable housing. Under current law, by working more than 80 hours per month, he or she can no longer live in a foster home and is forced to sacrifice opportunity in order to maintain safe housing.
I remember one brave young man who has a severe seizure disorder that slows his decisions and presents barriers to his progress. Yet, he believed so strongly that he and other foster young adults should have the option to stay in care until age 21 that he volunteered to testify in Olympia to support extended foster care. During his hearing, he collapsed while experiencing a seizure. But he got back up, as do so many of these young adults.
These are the young people who cannot participate in extended foster care under current law. Do we want to send them straight to the streets when they age out?
Additional time spent in a supportive home environment helps young adults after turning 18 build foundations for successful adulthood as citizens and taxpayers.
Studies show that most young people between the ages of 18 to 24 still live at home, even after completing four-year degrees. Extended care would allow young adults now leaving the foster-care system to access the same opportunities as their peers who are not in care, giving them time to strengthen their employment skills and to mature.
Moreover, extended foster care provides a healthy return on investment. The University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that every dollar invested in extending foster care created a $2 return.
To extend care for young adults who work more than 80 hours a month, it would only cost the state $38,000 this year, and just over $1 million in the 2015-17 budget cycle. This is more than a reasonable investment for such a healthy return.
Extending care for young adults with medical conditions is estimated to cost $142,000 this year and approximately $4 million during the next budget cycle. The increased cost reflects the needs of these foster recipients, who currently have few options at age 18.
Taxpayers receive this benefit because foster young adults avoid dependence on other state services, delay early parenting and reduce criminal behavior. Alternatively, incarceration costs Washington taxpayers nearly $47,000 annually per inmate, according to a 2012 report from the Vera Institute for Justice.
Let’s finish the job to provide extended foster care to the remaining young adults who have a medical condition or earn part-time employment. While strong bipartisan support for proposed bills HB 2335 and SB 6101 exists, both bills are at risk of failure in 2014. Our foster young adults and our public dollars are too valuable to let this happen.
Extending foster care is the most moral, cost-effective way to ensure that we invest in young citizens rather than new inmates.
Jim Theofelis is founder and executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to building a world-class foster-care system and ending homelessness among young adults.