California foster youth who are taking advantage of newly extended services are having a smoother transition into adulthood, according to a study released this month. But the state needs to do more, the researchers say.
Foster youth who remained in care after age 18 were more likely to be in school, had more social support, experienced fewer economic hardships and were receiving more supportive services than those who left care, according to the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study by researchers from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Those who left care were more likely to have been evicted, been unable to pay their rent, and had their gas or electricity turned off during the prior year. Almost a quarter of the participants left foster care and did not return.
The five-year, ongoing study began in 2012 after California enacted Assembly Bill 12, which extended youth’s access to foster care to age 21. The researchers first interviewed a random sample of 727 foster youth in 2013 when they were 17. The newly released study is based on interviews in 2015 of the 611 remaining participants — 84 percent of the original group — at age 19. The researchers will interview them again when they turn 21.
When they turn 18, foster youth who stay in care are given $800 a month, which they can use to help support themselves. They typically talk to their caseworkers once a month. Some youth stay with their foster families, relatives or spouses. Others try to make it on their own. A number of youth get help from a program called Transitional Housing-Plus, which provides housing and offers other support, such as job training and counseling.
Kamari Wells, now 20 and part of the study, took advantage of the transitional housing program and has attended community college to study communications and broadcasting.
“They supply an apartment for you,” she said. “You live with another roommate in the same situation.” Because the program gives the rent back to the foster youth when they turn 21, the monthly payments are flexible. Wells said she has paid as much as $500 and as little as nothing when she lost her job.
“Some people like to rebel and exited the program quite early,” Wells said. “I felt it was an opportunity to get going on something that’s meaningful.”
Although extending care to age 21 is helping a lot of foster youth such as Wells transition to adulthood, the state “needs to get a handle on the young people who are going to need more support than meeting with a caseworker once a month,” said lead researcher Mark Courtney, a professor at the university’s School of Social Service Administration and a Chapin Hall scholar.
About a third of all respondents screened positive for a mental health disorder or substance abuse. About 20 percent reported thinking about suicide, and about a third of those attempted it.
“More than a quarter of the young women have a child by the age of 19,” Courtney said. The state needs to provide child care and transportation so the young mothers can go to school and prepare for a career, he said.
The researchers found that 70 percent of all of the study’s participants were enrolled in school or employed at the time they were interviewed. However, most had experienced hardship and hunger at some point during the previous two years.
Although those who remained in care were positive about the help they had received, they also felt unprepared to live on their own. They had trouble paying rent, buying food and cooking.
“They taught us mindfulness” as a way to control spending, Wells said. “But if they taught us how to budget, it didn’t stick with me.”
Despite some setbacks, the vast majority of respondents said they felt positive about what lay ahead.
“Many participants reported feeling overwhelmingly optimistic about their futures and having access to adults to provide support,” the researchers said.
The study is being funded by the California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership, a coalition of state organizations and foundations working to improve the outcomes of children in the welfare system.
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