Most of the children who are placed in out-of-home care through the child welfare system exit to a “permanent” placement with a family member, or they are adopted or placed with a legal guardian. However, more than 20,000 young people each year “age out” of care, usually when they reach age 18. Most of these young people entered foster care in their teens after having spent years in difficult circumstances.
Outcomes for youth who age out of foster care are troubling. Various studies have found that they are less likely than their peers to complete high school, more likely to experience mental health problems and to become involved with the criminal justice system, and more likely to be unemployed, to live in poverty, and to experience homelessness. Of course, these poor outcomes are not necessarily the result of the time these young people spent in care.
Since 1985, the federal government has provided funding to states for independent living services for older foster youth. This program was expanded with the passage of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (FCIA), which created the Chafee Program. In addition to providing more federal funding, the FCIA allows states to use federal funds for room and board, to extend services and Medicaid coverage to former foster youth up to age 21, and to provide education and training vouchers to youth. Although the Chafee Program was a major step forward, the eligibility criteria for Chafee-funded services vary by state. In many states, a significant proportion of youth aging out of care do not qualify for the services, leaving them with very limited assistance. In 2008, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which provides federal matching funds for states to support children in foster care until age 21. States are currently considering how to implement the act and what kinds of services to offer transition-age youth.