Transitions out of foster care

End of the Line is a collaboration between InvestigateWest and KUOW asking what happens when teens get too old for foster care in Washington State.

At a time when more than half of 18-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. live at home, many foster youth in Washington leave the state’s protective system when they turn 18. They are suddenly alone and without support. The result is increased risk of homelessness, less likelihood of finishing college, lower lifetime earnings, and severe health and economic hardship.

In 2012, Washington opted in to a federal program providing matching funds to extend services until age 21 for some foster youth, and in 2013 the Washington Legislature expanded the program again. Now around 250 young adults are enrolled, but many of the 400-plus foster youth who age out each year are choosing independence — or don't have the choice.

We talked to five young adults, and here is what they had to say.

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Trickier than expected

After years of turbulence living with her mom, aunt, and grandmother, Desiree Magill entered foster care at the end of the 9th grade. Though some of her placements were better than others, Desiree says she never felt like she belonged, that she was always "the odd man out."

State law now allows more kids to stay in foster care for an extra three years — until age 21. But enrollment is still fairly low. Magill is one of the ones exiting — she moved out of her current foster family's home and into a dorm in September. She is a freshman at Seattle University this year, on a full scholarship for qualified foster kids.

Listen as KUOW’s Liz Jones looks at why this transition to adulthood is trickier than expected – for foster kids, and for the state.

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Beating the odds

A 2005 study of young adults who came up through the foster care system in the Northwest reached remarkable — and troubling — conclusions: Just 20 percent of alumni completed any degree or certificate program beyond high school, and only 1.8 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree. More than 1 in 5 had experienced homelessness after age 18; and 1 in 3 had household incomes at or below poverty level. One third had no health insurance, twice the rate of the general 18- to 44-year-old population.

“I think that brings on a challenge to us foster kids,” says Vinny Wilson. Wilson, 19, has spent much of his life in foster care, an escape hatch from his biological parents’ involvement in drugs and gangs. “It’s statistically proven that we’re failures.”

Wilson was adopted by his grandmother before he aged out. Now independent, he is doing double duty with a full-time job and a full course load at South Seattle Community College. He has an apartment with his girlfriend in south Seattle, up the hill from his parents’ old house.

“I think overall I was put into foster care to just learn in life what to do right,” he says.

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The federal law that gave money to states for extended foster care also created a new database, the National Youth in Transition Database, to measure the efficacy of the investment in Extended Foster Care (EFC). That data will, hopefully, help advocates and policymakers improve outcomes.

$1.35 Return on $1 investment in EFC

359 Youth aging out in fiscal year 2013

12% Youth opting into EFC, 2011-2013

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Going it alone

Born and raised in Seattle, Demecca says she entered foster care at age 5 and was in the system for 5 years, until her mother regained custody. “That didn’t go so well,” says Demecca, who was back in the system at age 11 or 12. Her mother fought for her again, but Demecca wasn’t interested and so, she “started running.” “I pretty much made sure they put me into care at 13. I was very angry with my mother, with the system.” She estimates that there were about 15-20 placements between age 5 and 17 when she took off for the last time.

Problems at school added to increasing problems at her foster home and her social worker, Sheila Wilson, announced another placement. But Demecca was done. “I’m not going to be tossed around like a rag doll,” she told herself, went online, bought a greyhound bus ticket and landed back in Seattle, where she spent the next few months living on a friend’s couch.

By the time she turned 18 she had a job working retail at Forever 21 in downtown Seattle.

“It’s hard. You have to really push. You have to really want it. It’s not given to you. You have to fight for it. But if you don’t know about the resources available, they’re not going to tell you. If you go in and talk to them, they’ll do what they can. They do for the kids that want something to be done for them. I was motivated, driven, ambitious.”

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'What does it mean to be an adult?'

In sheer numbers, the changes to foster care in Washington have been a success. More than twice as many youth are receiving transitional living services, as compared to six years ago. The Department of Social and Health Services expects enrollment to increase to 380 by June 2015, up from 190 in June 2013.

But it can be a hard choice for young adults ready for independence. "I might have benefited," says Roel Williams, 22. "I just don't think I would've even done it."

Four years out, Roel works at Top Pot Donuts and is still trying to figure out how to be a grownup. He has transitional housing through the YMCA.

“I feel like I'm doing adult things but I'm still a kid at heart. I mean, what does it mean to be an adult, like, to be boring?"

The newest guidelines from the Washington State Children’s Administration, released in July, mark a step forward for advocates. They explain in plain language the new eligibility rules for Extended Foster Care —including a year-long grace period to opt in — and expectations of foster youth, social workers and foster parents.

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The legislative agenda

While the Washington system is designed to help foster youth reach adulthood, it still may not support them through the full transition to independent living. Up to three more years of state help is good, but more time in the system isn’t by itself a panacea, experts say.

“The big concern that a lot of people have, is it’s not just a matter of extending the age of foster care,” says Amy Dworsky, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago. Age-appropriate services for 18- to 21- year olds need to be developed too, she says.

More significantly, young people who graduate from school or get a job get bounced from extended foster care under current Washington law. Academic or professional success is met with a dismissal from the social safety net set up specifically for these at-risk youth.

“You’re basically telling these people don’t get a job because we’re going to kick you out of foster care,” Dworsky says.

Advocates say the next push in Washington is to close that loophole and pass an extension of the program to young adults with jobs, as well as those with a medical condition that prevents them from going to school or working.

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By Jason Alcorn, Mike Kane and KUOW's Liz Jones

Special thanks to Carol Smith, Robert McClure and Claudia Rowe.

Our reporting is made possible through generous grants from the Satterberg Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, as well as the support of our members.

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