IMAGINE a world where your child is forced to leave your home at age 18. You can no longer provide the love, support and roof you worked so hard for throughout your child’s life. On his or her 18th birthday, your child must instantly transition into self-reliance with little more than a suitcase of belongings. Would your child be ready?
This is the reality for too many of the nearly 10,000 children and adolescents who have been removed from their families and placed in the foster-care system because of abuse or neglect. They enter the foster-care system in a time of crisis only to be kicked out at age 18, unprepared for the crises to come.
In a society where approximately half of all youth live with their parents until age 24, we expect those who have experienced childhood post-traumatic stress disorder to survive completely on their own at age 18. They have no family to fall back on when things get rough.
What happens to these youth? Study after study demonstrates that they end up homeless.
In its most recent annual survey, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that one of every 11 youth from foster care will experience being homeless.
Washington has a long pattern of discharging youth from foster care into homelessness.
This pattern is not unique to Washington. In fact, it is a national epidemic.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has identified that ending this practice in the foster-care system is key to ending youth homelessness in America.
In 2006, Washington established the Foster Care to 21 pilot program, thanks to forward-thinking legislators. This program allowed up to 150 youth to remain in foster care to age 21 to pursue their postsecondary education. The evaluation results are consistent with national research as well as what most parents and grandparents already know. Youth who had safe housing and other supports did significantly better than those who were literally on their own.
Not only did they reduce their negative behaviors such as stealing, early parenting and reliance on public assistance, but they also increased their academic achievement, gained valuable work experience and began the successful transition to healthy adulthood. In fact, for every Washington tax dollar invested in this service, our community received a return on investment of $1.35. Ensuring that youth have safe housing to use as a foundation for achievement makes both fiscal and common sense.
About 500 kids age out of foster care each year. The state legislation would help those who need housing the most. It is expected to cost the state $5 million for the first biennium, which will bring in a partial federal match — much less than the original proposed cost of $25 million.
Thanks to the bipartisan support of our Legislature, we have made great gains ensuring foster youth have the opportunity to remain in foster care to age 21. Currently, youth who pursue their secondary or postsecondary education are eligible to remain in foster care to age 21. But many do not get this support.
The Mockingbird Society, in collaboration with community partners and foster families, is asking our elected-leaders and community members alike to provide this opportunity to those youth who need it most.
Current proposed legislation, Extended Foster Care HB 1302 and SB 5405, would extend this support to youth facing significant barriers as they pursue their careers or education.
While the economy may be showing signs of recovery at the top, our youth on the ground are still stuck in the Great Recession, facing unemployment rates significantly higher than the general population.
In a time when youth with the most stable of upbringings face significant barriers, foster youth face these and more barriers on their own. They deserve the safety net of a stable home as they become productive citizens.
The moment the state decides to remove a child from home, that child becomes our collective responsibility as a community. As parents, our care and support guides our own children safely into self-reliance.
Our commitment should be no less for youth in foster care.
Jim Theofelis is executive director of the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based nonprofit working on improving the foster-care system.