What LEAs can do to support foster youth and prepare them for the future

A new report details the significant overhaul needed across sectors to better support and prepare those exiting the foster care system as they transition into adulthood — and schools can play an important role in reinforcing this work.

Released Jan. 24 by the Institute for the Future, Youth Law Center and California Youth Connection, On the Threshold of Change: Forces that could transform future conditions for youth in Extended Foster Care (EFC) notes that pandemics, rapidly advancing technology, climate crises, economic, workforce, housing and societal changes and more — circumstances that could never have been imagined by policymakers a decade ago — are already dramatically impacting foster youth transitioning to adulthood, while outdated systems have struggled to respond.

For the more than 600,00 youth who pass through the foster care system each year — including those who remain in foster care until adulthood — additional support is needed as they make the transition to adulthood.

Noting the importance of the education sector in supporting children in the foster care system, Youth Law Center Senior Policy Director Jenny Pokempner provided CSBA with 10 specific recommendations for local educational agencies:

  1. Adopt a student-first, strengths-based approach to working with young people impacted by the child welfare system.
  2. Prioritize opportunities for youth impacted by the child welfare system to become digital experts as part of their instruction.
  3. Provide information to youth in foster care (and those in probation-supervised foster care) about extended foster care and help them access the program as part of their preparation for graduation.
  4. Involve families — natural, foster, extended and chosen — in educational opportunities and provide them support to do so, including making sure they have an educational decision-maker.
  5. Create opportunities through school and community partnerships for youth to explore meaningful work/careers that will be abundant in the future and that can contribute to their sense of optimism/life purpose/future financial stability.
  6. Bring in community and corporate partners to work with schools and youth so youth develop relationships and are embedded in community support.
  7. Partner with child welfare and probation agencies to discuss plans for supporting students through climate emergencies to minimize disruptions.
  8. Work to create an array of holistic, creative behavioral health supports for students to support their mental health.
  9. Reduce barriers to school access and success by ensuring that enrollment, placement, and graduation policies and processes are streamlined, student-centered and comply with state law.
  10. Ask schools to join the charge to ensure every student is connected with family — their own and/or resource families — and that those families are supported by the districts and schools.

Breaking down the report

Congress authorized the option for states to utilize federal funds to extend foster care to age 21 in 2008, and California was among the first states to opt into the federal funding in 2010 — implementing extended foster care to age 21 beginning in 2012.

While this shift was intended to be a safety net for the most vulnerable youth exiting the foster care system — a way of providing the family and community relationships, concrete economic supports and other resources, and connections to the supports and services that would ensure a successful transition out of foster care to adulthood — many youth who have experienced extended foster stays continue to experience homelessness, incarceration, mental and physical health challenges, loneliness and isolation while in care and after they age out.

Foster youth already disproportionately experience homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and violence, and lag behind their peers in nearly all well-being, educational, post-secondary, economic and health measures.

The extreme challenges faced by youth during the pandemic, in the changing economy and during recent climate disasters highlighted the immediate need to reimagine foster care to better support and prepare youth for a future in a world that has dramatically changed over the past decade, researchers wrote.

Relying in part on youth voices to reimagine an approach to extended foster care that addresses both present and possible future conditions, the report contains three sections:

The Harsh Realities of Today explores aspects of family and economic inequity, racial injustice, the climate crisis, the digital divide and social volatility specific to the experiences of youth in extended foster care.

For instance, EFC often weakens, rather than strengthens, family relationships, according to the report. Although EFC was established to provide foster care systems three additional years to focus on reconnecting youth with family and building a network of support for 18-year-olds who previously would have “aged out” of the system, “current system structures work against the establishment of crucial relationships and social ties for youth being served.” For example, researchers spotlight the rules and qualifications for transitional housing programs and other foster care placements that prevent youths in EFC from living with younger siblings who may have experienced years of separation after continuous uprooting and relocating. Similarly, youth who are parents are often not permitted to live with their co-parent or other family members who can help share the important work of forming and supporting a family and parenting.

Foresight | The Transformational Forces of Tomorrow examines how transforming extended foster across four areas — equitable transition, restorative care, relational design and computational advantage — could ensure young people enter adulthood with the support and resources they need to thrive upon leaving the foster care system. “However, to become reality, these forecasts will require changes in national, state and local policy, resource allocation and practice,” the report states. “Advocates and policymakers have the opportunity to take action today to shape the four transformational forces outlined in the report that could ensure youth are prepared to thrive in 2035.”

Insights | Building a Future-Ready Youth-Service System explores three core outcomes for extended foster care design:

  • Building and nurturing quality social and family relationships
  • Solidifying financial stability by cultivating a sense of life purpose — and one’s ability to work toward that purpose
  • Instilling a healthy level of optimism — the ability to see goodness and opportunity in the future — felt by young people as they enter adulthood