Aging Out of Foster Care

Turning 18 or 21 for your typical American means newfound independence. Whether it’s going off to college or having a first legal drink, most young adults eagerly await these milestone birthdays. But for more than 20,000 young adults in this country, turning 18 or 21, is not a celebratory event. Depending on the state in which they live, young adults in foster care “age out” of the system at either 18 or 21. Essentially, aging out is the process that occurs when youth must leave the foster care system because they were never adopted and are too old to stay in care.        
The statistic are devastating. By age 26, only three to four percent of youth who aged out of foster care earn a college degree. One of five of these youth will become homeless after turning 18. Only half will obtain employment by 24. Over 70 percent of female foster youth will become pregnant by 21, and one in four former foster youth will experience PTSD.

The problems associated with aging out of foster care also affect the communities these youth live in. A 2013 study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative showed that, “on average, for every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs like public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages to a community over that person’s lifetime. Do the math and you can conservatively estimate that this problem incurs almost $8 billion in social costs to the United States every year.”

The dire social and economic effects of the aging out process, whether we realize it or not, touch each one of us. The solution to this problem can be found through the efforts and resources provided by individuals and a host of institutions like families, churches, corporations, nonprofits, and the government. As is true for most public justice issues, there is a unique role for both the government and private and public institutions to play to ensure that aging-out youth have the chance to flourish.
Individuals and families can play a significant role in helping foster children by considering adopting older youth in the child welfare system. In 2015 there were 427,910 children in foster care. There are an estimate 350,000 Christian churches in the United States. If only one to two families from each of those churches fostered or adopted just one child, there would no more foster care system, and every abused and neglected child in the country would live with a family.

However, fostering and adopting is not the only way to help. Individuals can volunteer for mentoring programs for foster kids. One such program is the San Diego Foster Youth Mentor Program, which trains mentors to help foster youth navigate adulthood. Another option is volunteering to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA programs are located around the country and volunteers ensure that children in care do not get lost in the complicated legal and social services systems. This is especially important for youth in foster care who need to make sure they are receiving the benefits they are entitled to, like education vouchers for college, before and after they leave the system.