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Study finds those who outgrow foster care still struggle

University Of Chicago : 04 July, 2007  (Technical Article)
As the definition of adulthood has shifted in this country and young people are living with their parents even into their 20's, one group has been mostly left behind in this phenomenon: thousands of people who grow up in foster care.
Nationally each year, some 20,000 youths who were once removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect leave their second home, the child welfare system, because they get too old for it. In some states, they are allowed to stay on until they turn 21, but in many more places, they 'age out' when they turn 18.

And that, the authors of a new study to be released on Thursday by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago say, can have devastating consequences. The study, which is believed to be the broadest of its kind in 20 years, looked at a rarely examined group, more than 600 young people, mostly 19 years old and in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, who recently left foster care or will soon do so.

As a group, the youths from foster care wrestled with tougher problems than a wide national sample of 19-year-old Americans, the study said. More than a third of those coming from foster care had no high school diploma or general equivalency diploma, compared with about 10 percent of people their age. Those from foster care were also far more likely to be pregnant, unemployed, unable to pay the rent, or getting counseling.

Perhaps more striking about the group from foster care, though, those allowed to stay in the child welfare system, living in foster homes or youth facilities beyond their 18th birthdays, seemed to fare better than those who headed out at 18. Those who left at 18 were half as likely to be enrolled in school or a training program than those still in care, the study found. Those who had left care were 50 percent more likely to be unemployed and out of school than those who stayed in. About 14 percent of those who left, in fact, reported finding themselves homeless at some point. Of those who left care, 11.5 percent reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, compared with less than 4 percent of those who stayed in care.

'Most states do not allow them to stay in much beyond 18, and that's the legacy of what we thought, historically, was the point of becoming an adult,' said Mark E. Courtney, the study's lead author and the director of Chapin Hall Center here. 'But it doesn't make sense anymore. What parent kicks their child out at 18? Why are we treating these kids radically differently than parents are treating every other kid?'

Dr. Courtney said he was unsure precisely how many states allow youths to stay in care until they are 21, but said that Illinois is one in that small group, while youths in Iowa and Wisconsin, and most other states, generally leave the foster care system when they turn 18 or 19.

It is uncertain, though, how much it might cost states to extend such benefits to 21, and in tight budget times, money may be one reason states have been reluctant.

'The reluctance could be a fiscal issue or it could be the whole issue, too, of older ward, you're not cute and cuddly anymore,' said Robert F. Harris, the public guardian who represents wards in Cook County, Ill. 'But by and large, young people need the benefit of societal support past 18, and even past 21.'

Shalonda Williamson, one of those surveyed in Dr. Courtney's study, said in an interview that she has been in the system since she was 9. Now 20, she is studying computers at college in Chicago, but remains in the formal care of the child welfare system here. To her, that is a relief. She has somewhere to live.

'If I had gotten out at 18, I think I'd be totally different than I am now,' she said. 'When you're 18, you're not really an adult anyway. I think it's around 20 when you start getting your life together.'

Even now, Ms. Williamson acknowledged, she does not have every adult question answered: She has no bank account or summer job.

But Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria, Va., said the 'dismal' findings described in Dr. Courtney's study and others emerging from the foster system across the country should not necessarily leave child welfare experts clamoring to hold youths in the system longer.

'When we talk about people aging out, we get away from the central point,' he said. 'What these results should tell us is that we've got to stop throwing so many children into foster care in the first place. What you can see is, regardless of what the problems were going in, foster care surely didn't fix them.'

The Chapin Hall study cost $1.6 million and was financed by the three states and the William T. Grant Foundation.
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