Study: Post-Foster Care, Teens Unprepared for Adult Life
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Foster care provides a measure of stability for millions of young people. That support often ends when they turn 18. New research on children who age out of foster care says many are not ready to handle life on their own. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.
RACHEL JONES reporting:
By the time he was 13, Thomas Hudson had had enough of his mother's drug abuse and beatings. He called Social Services and spent the next five years bouncing around Chicago from group home to youth shelter to the occasional foster family home. Five years ago, he turned 18. That was a particularly stressful time for Hudson, even though his godfather had agreed to take him in.
Mr. THOMAS HUDSON: I was getting ready to graduate high school and I was just coming out of a shelter. So I was still trying to adjust to living in someone's home and being under another person's authority.
JONES: Hudson was better off than most of the 20,000 youth who leave the foster care system each year. Most states stop providing housing, medical care and other services for foster care youth after age 18. But Illinois continues guardianship until age 21. By 19, Hudson had enrolled in school and found a part-time job, but his life was still chaotic.
Mr. HUDSON: My thinking was, `OK. I can get the shoes that I was never able to have. I can get the clothes that I was never able to have,' but I started noticing that school, the time that I would put into school would take away from the hours that I was making at work and I chose to make those hours which was not a wise decision.
JONES: Most teen-agers might make the same choice, but the consequences of poor decisions are magnified for youth who've spent years in foster care.
Mr. MARK COURTNEY (Chapin Hall Center for Children): To expect them to be on their own at 18 given the challenges that they bring with them to the child welfare system is cruel and unusual punishment really.
JONES: Mark Courtney is an associate professor and directs the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. He led the study of foster care teen-agers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Courtney says that while some of the youths in this study showed remarkable resilience and optimism, the overall picture was bleak.
Mr. COURTNEY: Those who left care at age 18, they were three times more likely to be both unemployed and not in school. Those who left care were more likely to lack medical insurance and to be concerned about their lack of access to health care. About 14 percent of the folks who left here had been homeless.
JONES: Only half the youths in the study had a savings or checking account, and most were earning less than $10,000 a year. Half the women in the study had been pregnant by age 19, and a third of all the youths had a diagnosable mental illness. Courtney says this new research is important because it's the first such study since the Chafee Independent Living Act went into effect in 1999. That federal law was created to provide housing subsidies, medical care and educational support for foster care youth after age 18. The law also lets states extend formal supervision to age 21. Illinois took on that responsibility and pays for it with state dollars. Teens can petition to get out of care before 21, but Courtney says the young men and women from Illinois in his study seemed to want to stay.
Mr. COURTNEY: Seventy-two percent of them choose to stay involved in the system. In most jurisdictions in the US, they would not have that option. So first of all, if we care what they think, they sort of voted with their feet and stayed in the system.
JONES: Courtney says some states are doing a better job of supporting teens who leave foster care, but as research shows, their programs must include elements like mentoring, medical care and social support that help ex-foster children feel connected to their communities.
Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.
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