The average young person who "ages out" of the foster care system in Los Angeles County at age 18 goes on to use almost $13,000 worth of health, mental health, criminal justice and social services before his or her 22nd birthday. That is more than two years' worth of college tuition in the Cal State University system. For former foster youth who also have had involvement in the juvenile justice system — so-called crossover youth — the amount is almost three times as high, about $35,000.
These are among the starker findings from our recently completed study of outcomes for those who exited the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Los Angeles County during their young adult years. These findings highlight the economic and social hardships that many former foster youth face as they transition to adulthood, and might be cause for pessimism. But there are strong reasons to be optimistic.
One of those reasons is the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which takes effect Jan. 1. This state law, once it's phased in over a three-year period, will allow young people to continue receiving the support of the foster care system until the age of 21, rather than forcing them to fend for themselves at 18. This change is long overdue and will help place the 5,000 foster youth who age out of care each year in California on more equal footing with their peers.
They will finally benefit from the type of financial and social support that most of their peers receive from their families during young adulthood. Indeed, American parents offer "total material assistance" averaging about $40,000 for each child between the ages of 18 and 34, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
However, to ensure that the funds behind the new law are leveraged to their full potential, more needs to be done to figure out what types of assistance work best for which types of youth.
For example, roughly half of former foster youth enroll in community college, but less than 5% complete a degree. Special on-campus programs might help more of them complete their degree programs. Or, intensive support services might be targeted toward promoting better outcomes for the one-quarter of crossover youth who receive treatment for a serious mental illness. Similarly, housing subsidies tied to participation in employment or educational programs might help more of these young people achieve self-sufficiency and avoid homelessness.
Los Angeles County is uniquely situated to be a national leader for developing innovative programs to help ensure successful adult outcomes for foster youth. It is one of only a handful of communities nationwide that has a system in place that enables county officials to link health, mental health, criminal justice, social service and education records. This system enabled us to complete our study, but it has a potentially more valuable use. The county could use it to quickly determine which programs for foster youth are effective and expand them or refine them. For example, the county could evaluate whether providing an array of intensive support services to crossover youth was successful in preventing adverse outcomes such as jail stays or inpatient hospitalizations.
If successful, programs that provide additional supports to foster youth are likely to generate substantial economic benefits, both for the young people and for the public purse. Having more foster youth excelling in the college classroom, on the job and in their own homes means that fewer will be filling jail cells, hospital beds and shelters. This will free up much-needed public resources for other uses.
California should make the most of the opportunity provided by this new legislation. Not only is it a chance to take an important step toward fulfilling a moral obligation to these vulnerable youth, but it offers the potential to do so through sound public policy.
Thomas Byrne, Dennis Culhane and Stephen Metraux are researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Their report on outcomes for L.A. County foster youth can be found at http://www.hiltonfoundation.org.