Working to transform the child welfare system.


Are We Preparing Young Adults Who Age Out of Foster Care for Adulthood?

The Fall brings crisp air, shorter days and the start of a new school year. For many young adults, it also means leaving the nest to embark on their next adventure – college, technical school or another path to adulthood. For many young adults, the transition to adulthood happens over a period of years rather than overnight.  

Young adults may be more independent, but they are still very much relying on their parents. In 2012, 56 percent of young adults, ages 18 – 24, were living at home with their parents [1].  A 2004 study found that parents provided roughly $38,000 in material assistance to their children (ages 18-31) during their transition to adulthood [2]. Beyond housing and financial support, parents often offer other kinds of support, such as non-tangible support like giving advice and listening [3].

Now imagine taking the leap into adulthood without any parental support. No parent to help out if you can’t pay rent or buy groceries. No parent to help you navigate all of the curveballs that life throws your way. For some young adults, this is a reality – each year, more than 20,000 young adults age out of the foster care system across the United States; their transition into adulthood is as tough as it can get.

The young adults who age out of the foster care system face a number of challenges that others don’t. The Midwest Study, which tracked a group of young adults who aged out of foster care found that by age 23 and 24, nearly 25 percent of the participants did not have a high school diploma or GED and only 6 percent had a 2 or 4 year college degree. Only 48 percent of the young adults were currently employed (although 84 percent had had a job since leaving foster care) [4]. By age 24, another study found that young adults who aged out of the foster care system in California, Minnesota and North Carolina struggled to earn a living wage and on average, earned less than half the national youth average and less than young adults who came from low-income backgrounds [5].

Quite simply, these struggles are not the ingredients for a thriving citizen. The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 attempted to address some of the problems these young adults face by increasing federal funding for Independent Living Skills (ILS) programs to assist foster care youth in their transition to adulthood. While some research has been conducted to look at the outcomes for youth in their transition to adulthood, there is still very little data available to assess the effectiveness of ILS programs and how they might impact transitions to adulthood.

However, in 2010, states began collecting data for the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD). The initial NYTD data collected information on ILS programs provided to youth and outcomes for youth who were 17 and still in foster care. While the outcome data will become more useful as more time passes, these data provide good information on the amount of youth who are using various ILS programs.

Let’s take a look at where Washington falls in a few key ILS programs.

Plot 1: Career Preparation

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The first plot shows career preparation which includes services to develop ”… a youth’s ability to find, apply for, and retain appropriate employment (NYTD Codebook).”  Nearly 54 percent of respondents in Washington State indicated that they had received career preparation services, putting Washington at 13 out of the 48 states and Washington D.C.

Plot 2: Employment and Vocational Programs

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The second plot shows employment and vocational training programs which includes training “…designed to build a youth’s skills for a specific trade, vocation, or career through classes or on-site training (NYTD Codebook).”  Nearly 16 percent of respondents in Washington State indicated that they had received such services, putting Washington at 28 out of 48 states and Washington D.C.

Plot 3: Budget and Financial Management

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The third plot shows budget and financial management skills, which are skills to teach financial and budget literacy such as keeping a budget, how to open and use a bank account, understanding loans and credit and filling out tax forms. Thirty-four percent of respondents in Washington State indicated that that they had received such services, putting Washington at 29 out of 48 states and Washington D.C.

Where Washington Stands

There are many more ILS programs available ranging from health education and risk prevention to post-secondary education support. All in all, Washington generally falls in the middle. One area where our state excels is in providing educational aid such as scholarships, vouchers, stipend or other financial aid to cover educational expenses. And one area that Washington appears weak is in the delivery of special education services. However, the numbers reported to NYTD are undoubtedly lower than the number of youth receiving special education services and are likely caused as result of how the data was collected.

What the Data Doesn’t Tell Us:

It’s unclear from this data why some programs have greater or lower levels of participation. The data doesn’t tell us why youth accessed some programs, but not others. Perhaps youth may be unaware of services that they are eligible for or they might be aware of the resources, but not interested in accessing them?

The data also tells us very little about the relation between ILS programs and their impact on transitions to adulthood. However, in 2013, states collected data from a sample of youth who had participated in the original survey and by the end of 2014, the data will be released. This will allow researchers and policy makers to assess the impact of ILS programs on outcomes for youth aging out of foster care on a scale that hasn’t been done before. We look forward to further analyzing more NYTD data as it comes out!

Notes on the Data:

NYTD requires states to submit semiannual reports on all youth who receive at least one independent living skills (ILS) service and contains data for fiscal year 2011 along with the first half of fiscal 2012. The data presented only includes data for fiscal year 2011. In order to avoid having duplicates, the data used only includes one record that defaults to ‘yes’ for the year if the individual received any services during the fiscal year.  Since some states allow youth to continue to access ILS services after the have left foster care, youth are included whether or not they are still in care. ‘Yes’ responses to the data mean that the youth received services paid for or provided by the State agency.

The lines on the bars within the charts are 95 percent confidence intervals.