For two years Karly Leib worked for a private agency that recruited foster parents. She reluctantly quit after getting worn down by the state foster system’s relentless struggles. “I thought, ‘How do I ask people to get involved in such a ridiculously broken system?’” she said.

Washington’s troubled foster care program struggles to keep foster parents

Over the course of four years, foster parent Veronica Moody of Kirkland took in babies and children with severe challenges, including drug exposure, extreme tantrums and nightmares, head-banging and third-degree burns. But that wasn’t the really hard part of the job, the part that drove away Moody and her husband Chris from accepting more kids. It was Washington state’s dysfunctional foster care system. “All the problems the state causes, due to lack of resources and lack of training, make our job as foster parents very difficult,” Moody said. “It burns you out.”

The Moodys’ tale is sadly familiar.

Each time a foster child change schools, he loses four to six months of academic progress. Many in Washington, shuffled between hotels and emergency housing options, are missing school altogether.

Foster system sets up kids for academic failure

Washington’s shortage of foster parents to care for abused and neglected kids is so overburdened that kids who are shuffled among hotels and emergency placements often miss school, further compromising their chances to become successful adults.

Vinny Wilson, 19, walks into his apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, in south Seattle on 9/17/2013.
Vinny has sent much of his life in foster care. Many adults in his biological family have been involved with gangs. Since aging out Vinny has become determined to support and better himself. He works and attends college full-time. He wants to be an accountant. “When I was younger I would cry every night, do the dishes and daydream about my mom and dad coming back.” 

Credit: Mike Kane for InvestigateWest

Aging Out of Foster Care

There is a solution to the problem of “aging out,” but evidence on whether it works is scant. As legislators weigh the benefits with the predicted cost of scaling up the program to cover every young person about to age out of the system – including those with criminal records – InvestigateWest examines what happens what foster teens reach the end of the line.

Two bills before the state legislature in 2013 would extend foster care benefits to age 21.

Aged out and alone at 18

Two bills now before the state legislature, including one that got a Senate committee hearing this week (SB 5405), seek to ease the rocky transition out of foster care in Washington by extending monthly benefits to age 21. Currently, nearly 600 wards of the state turn 18 each year with little in the way of a support network, and the results are no surprise: Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress.