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Study finds that caring for foster youth past age 18 improves their transition to adulthood
Extending care shown to benefit young adults, but former foster youth still lag behind non-foster peers

Dec. 12, 2007

Foster youth allowed to remain in care past age 18 are more likely to go to college than those who exit at 18, according to a study released by Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago at a Congressional briefing. The study, which is the most comprehensive examination of youth leaving foster care since the passage of the 1999 Foster Care Independence Act, found that extending care might also increase earnings and delay pregnancy. However, when compared to adolescents not in foster care, youth aging out of the child welfare system are faring poorly as a group.

Chapin Hall’s Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study) has followed foster youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin since 2002 and compares them to adolescents in the general population. Because Illinois is one of only a few states in the nation that extends the state’s parental responsibilities until youth turn 21, Chapin Hall researchers were also able to analyze how those remaining in state care longer were coping with adult responsibilities, in contrast to those who left at age 18.

According to Mark E. Courtney, faculty associate and past director of Chapin Hall and lead author of the report, “The three states in our study provide an excellent context for developing policy at a national level. Because they have contrasting service environments and both urban and rural foster populations, we can draw conclusions about the impact of policies and interventions that can inform federal legislation.” Dr. Courtney is currently the executive director of Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington.

Researchers interviewed 732 foster youth ages 17 and 18 and interviewed 603 of them again at age 19. The most recent findings are based on interviews with 591 young people (81 percent of the original participants) when they were 21 years old.

Among the study’s findings are:

  • Youth remaining in state care until age 21 are three-and-a-half times more likely to attend college and more than twice as likely to complete at least one year of college than those who leave care at age 18.
  • Each additional year in state care is associated with increased earnings of about 17 percent.
  • Remaining in state care until age 21 is associated with a 38 percent reduction in the risk of becoming pregnant during late adolescence (ages 17–19).
  • Youth remaining in state care past age 18 are more likely to receive the independent living services that all former foster youth are eligible to receive until age 21. Examples of available services include: postsecondary education or vocational training; help with completing college applications and applying for financial aid; and assistance in finding housing, applying for jobs, and living within a budget.
  • More than two-thirds of the young adults from Illinois were still in care after their twentieth birthday, and more than half did not leave care until age 21. This runs counter to anecdotal reports that few foster youth would choose to remain in care past age 18.

Despite these optimistic trends for youth who remain longer in state care, as a group, former foster youth are not faring well as compared to non-foster peers.

“Our findings demonstrate how young people who are wards of the state can benefit from extended care and supports,” said Dr. Courtney. “But our study also powerfully illustrates the inadequacy of our current efforts to ensure that all former foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood.”

When the 21-year-olds in the Midwest Study were compared with a nationally representative sample of 21-year-olds who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers found:

  • The former foster youth were more likely than their non-foster peers to have experienced a variety of economic hardships, such as lacking enough money to pay rent or utilities and being evicted.
  • Forty-four percent of the former foster men had been arrested, nearly a third had been convicted of a crime, and 43 percent had spent time in jail or prison between their second interview, at approximately age 19, and their final interview at age 21 — rates that are much higher than those found in the general population of young adults.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the former foster women had been pregnant by age 21, compared with only one-third of non-foster peers. Repeat pregnancies were more the rule than the exception among the former foster 21-year-old women.
  • Half of the former foster women had received food stamps during the past year compared with just 6 percent of their non-foster female peers. In fact, three-quarters of the former foster women, and 96 percent of the young women who were living with a biological child, had received supports from one or more government programs, such as food stamps, TANF or housing assistance.
  • Nearly one-quarter of the former foster youth had not earned a high school diploma or a GED by age 21, compared with just 11 percent of non-foster peers.
  • Only 30 percent of the former foster youth had attended college, compared with 53 percent of non-foster peers.
  • Just over half of the former foster 21-year-olds were working, compared with nearly two- thirds of non-foster 21-year-olds.
  • Median annual earnings among the former foster youth who were working were just $5,450 compared with $9,120 of non-foster peers.
  • Only half of the former foster 21-year-olds had a checking or savings account, compared with 81 percent of non-foster peers.

“The introduction of new federal legislation (S.1512) suggests that policymakers are rethinking the government’s responsibility to support foster youth during their transition to adulthood,” said Dr. Courtney. “And that’s a very positive development.”

The Title IV-E Independent Living Program has provided states with money to help prepare their foster youth for the transition to adulthood since 1986. The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 created the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program that doubled the amount of federal money available to states to $140 million annually, expanded eligibility for services, including funds for room and board, and granted states the option of extending Medicaid coverage to former foster youth until age 21. The Act was later amended to include vouchers for postsecondary education and training. The Midwest Study was designed in part to provide a comprehensive picture of how foster youth making the transition to adulthood fare post-Chafee.

The Congressional briefing was organized by Chapin Hall Center for Children, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and the American Public Human Services Association. The Midwest Study was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the Iowa Department of Human Services, and the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services Division of Children and Family Services.

For a copy of the report or to speak with Dr. Courtney, contact Carolyn Saper, director of communications at Chapin Hall at and 773.256.5212, or Jelene Britten, and 773.256.5138. The full report and an issue brief examining the potential benefits of allowing foster youth to remain in care until age 21 are posted on the Chapin Hall website at

Chapin Hall is an independent applied research center at the University of Chicago that is dedicated to bringing rigorous research and innovative ideas to policymakers, government officials, service providers, and funders working to improve the well-being of children and adolescents.

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Last modified at 05:29 PM CST on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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