End of the Line is a ongoing series by InvestigateWest asking what happens when teens get too old for foster care in Washington State. Our latest story, a collaboraiton with KUOW, looks at why getting teens enrolled in Washington's new extended foster care program can be tricky.
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“Aging out” of foster care is standard for nearly 600 wards of the state who turn 18 each year, and the results are no surprise: Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress. They end up in jail, prison or hospital emergency rooms far more frequently than other teens their age. Most never attend college. There is a solution, 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. Credit: Jon Connell/Flickr
Growing up in a trailer with her uncle and grandfather, Sharayah Lane always knew what her 18th birthday would mean: homelessness.
As expected, when that day came it was marked not by parties, but an immediate end to the foster-care reimbursement checks that allowed Lane’s relatives to cover the costs of sheltering her. No more checks meant no more housing.
“It was just common knowledge – when you turn 18, you’re done,” Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways. For me, that was couch-surfing – keeping my stuff in my backpack and staying wherever I could.”
This phenomenon, known as “aging out” of foster care, is standard for nearly 600 wards of the state who turn 18 each year, and the results are no surprise: Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress. They end up in jail, prison or hospital emergency rooms far more frequently than other teens their age. Many depend on welfare and food stamps. Most never attend college.
Twobills now before the state legislature, including one that got a Senate committee hearing this week (SB 5405), seek to ease this rocky transition by extending monthly foster care benefits to age 21.
Much has been made of millennials as an entitled generation. In reality, Americans aged 20 to 24 face an unemployment rate of 13.2 percent, far higher than the national average. And prospects for their financial rebound are grim – even among the educated. Economists say that graduating from college into a recession can depress future earnings up to 20 percent.
Take all that and consider the outlook for foster youth, most of whom have neither parents nor college degrees.
Lane, for example, spent the four years between 18 and 22 trying, and failing, to find a foothold. She worked as a day laborer, dabbled in selling drugs, then went back to couch-surfing.
“I was trying to get by any way that I could,” she said.
At 21, Lane won admittance to community college with a GED and full-ride scholarship, but soon dropped out, overwhelmed by the pressures of living on her own as an adult when she was, by most measures, still just a kid. Transitional housing, where she stayed, off and on, with two dozen other former foster youth, represented comparative stability.
Across the political spectrum there is wide agreement that the Senate legislation and its House companion (HB 1302) make sense – philosophically, at least.