The vast majority of California’s foster youth plan to graduate from college, but a much smaller percentage of them have the academic background they need to succeed, according to a new survey of 17-year-old foster youth in the state.

The CalYOUTH study, as it is known, is part of a five-year evaluation by researchers at the University of Chicago who surveyed 727 California youth to determine the impact of extending foster-care benefits to California youths beyond age 18. Philanthropic foundations are funding the study following passage of Assembly Bill 12 in 2010, which allows eligible foster youths to receive benefits until they are 21.

California policymakers and social service agencies plan to use the youths’ descriptions of their “assets, aspirations and needs” to develop policies to support them as they transition to independence.

The study “provides us with meaningful insights into our foster care system,” said Will Lightbourne, director of the California Department of Social Services, in a statement accompanying the report, Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study: Conditions of Foster Youth at Age 17. “Understanding the experiences of youth currently in care will allow us to implement policies that truly support successful transitions to adulthood.”

“The good news is that four out of five foster youth want to go on in school,” said the study’s lead author Mark Courtney. “But they are going to need a lot of help. One in five is a young woman with a kid.”

Although other states have extended foster care services to age 21, “California has the largest state foster care population in the United States, making what happens in California’s child welfare system of national significance,” the report notes.

Fifty-two percent of the students surveyed expect to graduate from college, with another 22 percent planning to continue their studies after college graduation. However, a third of the students at one time were placed in a special education classroom and a third had repeated a grade. Two-thirds of the students said they had received an out-of-school suspension. And more than half said they received mostly C’s or D’s, or lower.

“The good news is that four out of five foster youth want to go on in school,” said the study’s lead author Mark Courtney. “But they are going to need a lot of help. One in five is a young woman with a kid.” The report also shows that most of the youth will not be able to be economically self-sufficient, with two-thirds reporting having no work experience.

In addition, many of the youth surveyed have not received the mental health counseling they need, Courtney said. Before entering foster care, 45 percent of the girls reported they had been molested. Before entering foster care, one in five of boys and girls had a caretaker who attempted to choke, smother or strangle them, they said, and 17 percent reported having been locked in a room or closet for several hours or longer.

Half of the girls and a quarter of the boys have thought about suicide, according to the survey, with 30 percent of the girls and 14 percent of the boys saying they had tried to kill themselves.

“It’s pretty obvious that the notion of extending care is a good idea,” Courtney said. Equally clear, he said, is that the population is so diverse that there are no policy solutions that will help all the youth.

Despite the odds against them, nine of 10 foster youth expressed optimism about their future and expect to continue to rely on the government after turning 18, with well more than half of them saying they were lucky to have been placed in foster care.

The University of Wisconsin Survey Center conducted the survey between April 15, 2013 and Oct. 11, 2013.

The study was funded by the Stuart Foundation,* the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

*The Stuart Foundation provides funding to EdSource but has no control over editorial decisions.


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