As we approach National Foster Care Month in May, lawmakers — and the citizens they are accountable to — have an opportunity to stand up for youth in foster care in meaningful ways. One key strategy to do this is by funding services for foster youth as they make the transition to adulthood from age 18 to 21. While the goal of the foster care system is to reunify children with their families, each year almost 25,000 youth nationwide — and nearly 150 in Louisiana — age out of the foster care system at age 18. That means that the state, which has parented them, sets them loose and provides no safety net, much less the moral and social support that families provide their children.
Whether you are a parent or simply an adult who recalls the perils of transitioning to the adult world, the realities of today’s society and economy mean that the majority of youth are not ready to successfully be on their own until their mid-20s. During the transition to adulthood, the average young person relies significantly on the financial, social, and moral support of their family; they frequently live at home, and also receive financial support, advice, and guidance. This support puts young adults in the right position to get a good job, support themselves and contribute to the community. During this transition, family is a bridge, a safety net — and sometimes a lifeline.
The sad fact is that what we know as true and effective for our own children is not what we provide for youth in foster care for youth who have the least family and social support. When we turn our backs on the most vulnerable of young people at age 18, we know exactly what the result will be. We know it from experience with our own children, and the data available illustrates the consequences in stark detail: large numbers will be homeless, many will not yet be equipped with the education or skills to get a living wage job, and few will have the safety net of family when there is a crisis. If the decks were stacked against these children when they entered foster care, we effectively push them off a cliff when we let them age out at 18.
Alternatively, we know from states that provide support to youth in foster care past 18 that their chances for success and independence are much improved. A majority of the states — including states as diverse as Alabama, Nebraska, Maine, and Pennsylvania — provide support for youth in foster care between 18 and 21.
This week, the House Appropriations Committee will be hearing testimony on the executive budget. Advocates and community stakeholders will be speaking on behalf of youth aging out of foster care. A legislative task force released the Task Force on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care report in February. As Louisiana moves toward developing its budget, we hope lawmakers will keep the futures of these young in the front of their minds. The recommendations of the report are clear. We must stand up for the youth for whom we as a community have taken responsibility and provide them with a bridge to adulthood. It is not only our responsibility, but also an investment from which Louisiana will reap tremendous benefits. It is also sound economic policy; savings brought by reduced use of services and increased tax base will serve as a meaningful contribution to the state.
For those concerned with the message we are sending our most vulnerable and resilient youth during National Foster Care Month, we can choose to support policies and a budget that shows them they have great value, that we expect great things from them, and are willing to do what it takes to get those results. National Foster Care Month should be a call to action. We trust in the wisdom, kindness and social responsibility of Louisiana’s citizens and lawmakers to answer the call for transition-aged youth during this budget season.
Jennifer Pokempner is child welfare policy director at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.