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Perspectives from the field of Child and Youth Care

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USA

Building a pathway to resilience for foster youth through social capital 

Imagine that on your 18th birthday, someone who you trust dearly calls to inform you that you are no longer welcome in your own home after years of living there. This person isn’t your brother, cousin, aunt or uncle. It’s a social worker, the person representing you while you are in foster care.

Your social worker calls to inform you that the foster home you were living in for three years no longer wants you there because the government stopped paying for your bed. She explains that you need to leave the home within the week, but by the time you reach the doorstep to retrieve your belongings, they are already packed into garbage bags and waiting for you on the porch.

Your transition into adulthood has abruptly begun. This was my experience.

Most young people look forward to the day they will turn 18. It marks the beginning of a time for exploration, growth and new beginnings. But for young people who grow up in the U.S. foster care system, turning 18 can often be a troubling and startling experience.

Too many youth emancipate from foster care without the social capital invested in their teenage peers. By social capital, I mean the critical factors that help most young people transition to adulthood: stable housing, assistance with education, and supportive adult relationships.

My recently completed research on the subject shows that the philanthropic community has played a significant role in bringing capital to the table for this population. But I also found that there is a lot more that grant makers can and should do.

According to federal data, there were approximately 428,000 children in the U.S. foster care system in 2015. In that same year, more than 20,000 foster youth aged out of the foster care system without reuniting with their families or finding permanent homes. In California alone, approximately 5,500 young people aged out of the foster care system in 2014.

From the trauma experienced prior to aging out to the lack of planning for my future, I quickly had to sketch out my path of survival. Thousands of young people who exit out of the system each year often find themselves traveling down this similar path.

Thankfully, social supports like my high school principal and high school teacher were critical to my transition to adulthood and have been lifelong supports that have contributed to my success. Often this is not the case for other foster youth.

On average, youth in the United States are not expected to reach self-sufficiency until age 26. Most youth raised by birth families have supportive connections and lifelong supports, such as parents, extended family and friends, to aid in their success. Approximately half of the country’s 18- to 24-year-olds remain at home, and nearly two-thirds of youth in their early 20s receive economic support from their parents.

Meanwhile, youth exiting the foster care system are expected to achieve a level of independence at ages 18 or 21.

Young people experiencing the child welfare system often transition out of care without guidance, stability or social support. Even though about half of the states in the country have extended foster care to age 21, many young people still leave care without adequate resources to enter adulthood.

The study that I conducted examined how several grant makers in California support foster youth in building social capital, but many of them only support these young people until age 21 or 24. The purpose of my research was to gain a deeper understanding of what models, programs and policies foundations are using to support the success of foster youth.

To help readers better understand the importance of social supports and connective relationships for young people as they transition out of foster care, I also highlighted two young people who transitioned out of California’s child welfare system. Both young people had similar stories, where they aged out without proper supports.

You can click here to read my entire thesis. The trend that I noticed during my study among these young people was that philanthropic entities were major contributors to social supports, such as education, job training and mentoring. But grant makers were not as active when it came to transitional elements, especially the one most critical for post-care stability: transitional and affordable housing.

I also recommend, as a result of my research, that foundations extend services for young people beyond the age of 25. Financial and social supports are life-long things that people need. Both young people who I interviewed talked about the importance of having life-long relationships and supports beyond the age of 21. Journey House, Inc. is a great example of an organization in California that works with foster youth beyond foster care and has no age limits to their services.

Entering adulthood presents many questions and unknowns for the most supported young person. For many foster youth aging out of the system, there is the additional terror of homelessness, incarceration and unemployment. All three of these outcomes are far more likely for an emancipated foster youth than it is for their peers.

Opportunities that lead to social capital are critical to a youth’s success, and the philanthropic sector plays a vital role in helping foster youth transition well. The philanthropic sector is in a position to fund innovative programming, advocate for systems and policy shifts, and model developments that contribute to societal well-being.

By Amnoni Myers

11 December 2017

Amnoni Myers is an former foster youth who recently graduated with a Masters in Public Administration from the National Urban Fellows Program. She is an associate consultant for Forward Change Consulting.  

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