Youth Involved in the Foster Care System

The youth involved in the foster care system represent one of the most vulnerable populations in our society and will require the expertise of caring professionals in multiple systems working together to “move the needle” of success upward. Collaborative efforts across the country between workforce development, child welfare, mental health, schools, and other community institutions are needed to improve the chances that youth in foster care will make a successful transition into adulthood and be able to lead productive lives including having careers of their choice.

Youth in foster care face extraordinary challenges in the areas of mental health, education, employment and finances:

  • A majority (just under four-fifths) of adults formerly in foster care have significant mental health disabilities (depression, social phobia, panic syndrome, anxiety, etc.), with one in four (25.2%) experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the previous 12 months.
  • Their employment rate was also lower than that of the general population, with no more than 45% of emancipated youth reporting earnings in any one quarter over a thirteen-quarter period of one study.
  • A disproportionately high number of former foster care youth experienced more than seven school changes from elementary through high school and completed high school via a GED and not a regular diploma.
  • One-third of former foster care youth have incomes at or below the poverty level—earning less than $6,000 per year in wages—substantially below the federal poverty level of $7,890 for a single individual.
  • The birth rate for girls in foster care (17.2%) is more than double the rate of their peers outside of the foster care system (8.2%).
  • One-third also lacked health insurance—almost twice the rate of the general population.
  • Large numbers of former foster care youth exit care without assurance of any stable housing, with almost a quarter experiencing homelessness after leaving care.

For children and youth in the foster care system, life’s ordinary challenges and opportunities frequently become extraordinary. Nationally, there has been growing recognition and concern that these challenges and opportunities are even more pronounced for young people who transition out of the foster care system when they reach their teen years. Many of these youth also have disabilities. Of the more than 500,000 children in foster care, 30 to 40% are also in special education. However, this number does not capture all youth with disabilities in the foster care system, since many who experience mental and emotional forms of disabilities after reaching adolescence are not included in special education programs. In one study, it was estimated that between 20 to 60% of young children entering foster care have a developmental disability or delay. This compares with an estimate of about 10% among the general population. While estimates vary, the numbers are significant and clearly show that youth with disabilities are over-represented in the foster care population, which adds to the complexity of the situation. Between 18,000 and 20,000 youth aged 16 and older transition from the foster care system each year. These youth have spent, on average, about six years in care, with disproportionate numbers of young people of color, especially males, remaining in foster care for longer periods of time.

By addressing the specific developmental needs of this population, caring adults (e.g., policymakers, program administrators, youth service professionals, parents, family members) can substantially increase the likelihood that youth in foster care, with and without disabilities, will complete their education, become employed, and ultimately become productive members of society.

Guideposts for Success for Youth in Foster Care

The framework that follows highlights specific experiences, supports, and services that are relevant to providing comprehensive transition services to all foster care youth, including those with disabilities, within the framework of the Guideposts for Success. An increased understanding of the challenges facing this population of young people, combined with an enhanced level of coordination among the education, workforce, post-secondary and child welfare systems, will increase the likelihood of personal and systemic success in the transition from adolescence to productive adulthood and citizenship. This coordination is also a necessary precursor for the leveraging (“blending” or “braiding”) of resources among these partners. Finally, the Guideposts can support an infrastructure for the measurement of outcomes for foster care youth in transition, especially as it relates to their economic self-sufficiency.

Full implementation of the Guideposts for Success for Youth in Foster Care does not yet exist in any known community in its entirety. However, key components are emerging in an array of communities across the country. As more is learned through collaborations among key institutions, and as professionals develop more familiarity and expertise about what different stakeholders can bring to the table, it can be anticipated the full framework will be realized.

The Guideposts for Success, are a comprehensive framework that identifies what all youth, including youth with disabilities, need to succeed during the critical transition years. The five Guidepost areas of focus are:

  • School-based preparatory experiences
  • Career-preparation and work-based experiences
  • Youth development and leadership opportunities
  • Connecting activities (support and community services)
  • Family involvement and supports

NCWD/Youth Resources

Negotiating the Curves Toward Employment: A Guide About Youth Involved in the Foster Care System

Guideposts for Success for Youth in Foster Care

Foster Youth Demonstration Project: Final Evaluation Report (pdf and word)

Partner Resources

Youth with Disabilities Aging Out of Foster Care: Issues and Support Strategies (ICI)

Related Resources

The Future of Foster Care: A Revolution for Change - Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI)

Youth with Disabilities in the Foster Care System: Barriers to Success and Proposed Policy Solutions (NCD)

Forgotten Children: A Case for Action for Children and Youth with Disabilities in Foster Care (UCP)

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