Providing Modern Support for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care Programs

By Andrea Danes    June 16, 2023

In brief

  • Foster youth without a strong support network face many challenges as they exit the child welfare system.
  • Resources are available, but enrollment processes are cumbersome, and many require in-person meetings and paper records.
  • Transforming outdated systems with modern experiences can change thousands of lives every year.

Every year, more than 23,000 U.S. teenagers become emancipated from, or “age out” of, the foster care system. Many enter adulthood without a support system and find themselves with nowhere to go, with one estimate from the National Foster Youth Institute claiming that 20% of foster youths become homeless the instant they age out. All this has led many to call the foster care system “a highway to homelessness.”

While their peers focus on their post-high-school futures and rites of passage, knowing they can fall back on family structures and headquarters, many former foster youths enter this phase of new adulthood and independence with additional challenges.

We want former foster youth to know they are not alone and that resources and assistance programs are available. Unfortunately, navigating them is a challenge that places additional burdens on those who need help. The trials and risks are even greater for young people who may lack self-advocacy skills and are still suffering the trauma and stress of being removed from their biological family, having grown up in unfamiliar homes.

My own family experience has taught me just how much this population needs support—and how the current system falls short. I have three grown children, the youngest of whom, my daughter Grace, came to us through the foster care system. Even with our loving support and parenting, we found that, at times, the system was a complex, confusing minefield. It’s sad but not surprising to me that so many people slip through.

We have the opportunity to modernize and improve access to resources that already exist. We can help these youths access all the benefits they are entitled to and eligible for so that they can determine their own goals and have a better future. They can trade simply surviving for thriving.

The risks of not getting foster care transition right

The risks are terrifyingly high for a young person emancipating from the child welfare system without a strong support network. Housing instability or homelessness affects prospects for future educational attainment, employment, health and well-being, and family preservation.

In these challenging situations, predators see opportunity. Homeless foster youths are at high risk of human trafficking, and 7 in 10 women who age out of foster care will become pregnant before age 21.

Increased exposure to difficulties continue with 8 in 10 foster youths experiencing significant mental health issues;⁵ many who age out develop a criminal record; only 50% find employment by age 24; one in two will develop a substance abuse dependence.

Modernizing foster care support in the digital age

Another tragedy is that services and programs to help foster youths transition to independence have always been available—as have funds for these programs. Knowledge and accessibility are the barriers. Often, these young people don’t have the life skills and educational levels to navigate the complexity of the enrollment process. Again and again, they are asked to tell a new person about their history and upbringing. Many simply choose to walk away.

We should do a better job of bringing outdated systems into the digital age and clearly signposting the options available.

When I tried to help my daughter Grace through the process, I found the foster care support systems difficult to use, and that is through the viewpoint of a college graduate with a long professional career, not to mention someone who isn’t carrying around the weight of a significant life crisis.

In a previous role as a government official, I helped define some of these programs. Now I realize that what looked good on a whiteboard doesn’t necessarily make sense at the keyboard.

Gen Z has grown up with a digital mindset. Everything is on their phone, via text, apps, and links. They aren’t used to things like filling out physical paperwork and using fax machines. As my family discovered, the processes are complex and manual. Paper records, court dates, and phone calls are required.

Grace’s story: ‘I had to use my own voice and never knew what to say'

Here, my daughter Grace, 24, shares her experience of aging out of the foster care system.

“Looking back, it was severely confusing. I don’t think all the information was presented to help me succeed. There were so many court dates and conference calls to keep track of. Not to mention all the emails I sent back and forth to my lawyer. Needless to say, a 17-year-old should not be expected to handle it on their own.

It was tough because I had to use my own voice and never knew what to say. I had to email my caseworker/lawyer to have my options even brought to my attention.

Had I not had such amazing foster parents, who I consider my own, I don’t know where I would have gone. They broke down the big picture for me to better understand the possible outcomes. They guided me through every phone call, every e-mail, and every decision to make sure I did what was best for me. My mom and dad helped me a tremendous amount but also made sure I had my own voice. Unfortunately, most kids do not have that opportunity or option.

Giving up would have been so easy. Without their help, there is a great chance that I would have been lost in the dust.

My ideas to help children aging out of foster care programs in the future:

  • Counseling should be a priority and heavily encouraged.
  • After-school classes would really help, whether for finance, how to handle emotions properly, or creating post-high school plans to make it seem possible and realistic to have a purpose and a career. Funding toward these types of classes would last much longer than a basic pay allowance.
  • Present trade school options. Trade programs tend to be short-term, which helps people learn a skill and establish a career quickly.
  • We could also think about paying full-time students while they are in school.

Considering that half of all homelessness stems from the foster care system, putting money toward these things would be a huge investment and would mean the next generation of aging-out foster youth could fully contribute to society and be part of the pool of talent. It’s a win-win. We could give foster care children the tools they need to succeed and bring down homelessness.”

How we can help youth aging out of foster care programs in the future

I've seen firsthand how the odds are stacked against young people aging out of foster care. In the absence of a more streamlined way to access and understand the benefits available, we're losing them to a variety of misfortunes. We have a huge opportunity today to change this. What if state agencies built a better way for youth to navigate these systems?

Progress has been made in recent years, but more needs to be done to help. Agencies should begin connecting dots for the youth they serve with a data-driven, human-centered approach and the creation of easily navigable systems. What could the societal impact be if everyone truly had support?

To transform the current system:

  1. Put people at the center of every project with an integrated, human-centered design. We need to follow a citizen-centric point of view by putting the person in the center and creating the access paths and processes around them.
  2. Create a more digital, tech-forward experience and remove unnecessary requirements for the delivery of information through telephoning, faxing, or in-person meetings.
  3. Take what has been done in the last 50 years and bring it into 2023, using data and making it intuitive, and being proactive instead of reactive.
  4. Connect points of support around the person instead of asking them to navigate multiple programs. A person enrolling in one program should be able to share their data more widely to determine eligibility for other programs and accelerate access to benefits. Once the person has agreed to share information, the responsibility should rest on the agencies to help them access all the services that are earmarked and available.

We have an opportunity to transform archaic and complicated programs with a more easily navigable, integrated, person-centric approach that gets real results. Otherwise, every year, the future of thousands of young people will be in jeopardy.

About the Author

Andrea Danes

EY Global Human Services Leader

Providing Modern Support for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care Programs

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