Fostering Future Success

In 2012, California implemented extended foster care legislation to improve outcomes for 18- to 21-year-olds. Is the program working?

Back Longreads Feb 24, 2020 By Laurie Lauletta-Boshart

Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of their stories, Comstock’s agreed not to fully identify the two women who were interviewed about their experience with extended foster care. 

Every Thursday morning, Superior Court Judge Paul L. Seave presides over the non-minor-dependent calendar for the County of Sacramento. He hears 19-20 matters on how 18- to 21-year-olds are doing in extended foster care. A decade ago, extended foster care, or EFC, did not exist in California. When foster youth turned 18, they aged out of the system and often transitioned to adulthood with a bag of their belongings, a small amount of money, and a list of board and care facilities and shelters. Not surprisingly, this led to alarming national statistics: More than half ended up homeless, incarcerated or on welfare, according to the Youth in Transition Data Profiles from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and the Fostering Youth Transitions data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

In 2008, the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act passed and offered states federal funds to help EFC services up to age 21. In California, to make the case for EFC, child welfare advocates utilized data from a study led by Mark E. Courtney, a University of Chicago professor in the School of Social Service Administration and a former California child welfare worker, on weighing the cost of EFC against the benefits. Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, was signed into law in September 2010 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2012. It extends foster care services to age 21 for those in foster care placement on their 18th birthday. Enrolling in the program is optional.

Once foster youth turn 18 in California, they are eligible to enroll in EFC for continued funding and support services as long as they go to school, work, attend a job-readiness program or have a medical condition that prevents them from meeting these requirements. Once enrolled, EFC youth can choose from a transitional housing placement plus foster care plan or a supervised independent living placement.

“It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t have this before,” says Seave, who has been presiding over the NMD calendar for more than two years. “Our goal is to give non-minor dependent foster youth assistance as best as we can, recognizing that they are adults who are coming from a very difficult situation where they’ve experienced a lot of trauma and other challenges. We don’t want to pull any safety net because this is more than their safety net; it’s their only net.” 

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 26 states have established some kind of federally funded, extended foster care program. California’s foster care population — 59,172, according to Kidsdata.org — is the largest in the country and is being closely monitored by other states that have not yet implemented to see how California’s program is working and if anticipated outcomes are measuring up. 

Extended Foster Care in the Region

Before implementing EFC, counties in the Capital Region relied on data from other jurisdictions across the U.S. to estimate opt-in numbers for foster youth 18 and older who choose to remain in the foster care system. The average opt-in rate was close to 65 percent, so that became the benchmark for larger counties like Sacramento and Placer. Yolo County anticipated about a 40-50 percent opt-in rate. But the opt-in rates turned out to be higher — much higher: 95 percent for Sacramento County (about 363 youth), 98 percent for Placer County (about 100) and 85 percent for Yolo County (about 62), according to the most recent data available. The state’s opt-in rate of 85 percent (about 6,500) is also higher than the national average. 

“It was kind of surprising to all of us, pleasantly surprising,” says Michelle Callejas, director of Sacramento County’s Department of Child, Family and Adult Services. “I think there was some anticipation that some of our young people would just say, ‘We’re done with all of you, and we’re out,’ and actually that has not been the case. This is a significant shift for California’s child welfare program and one that has greatly benefited our foster youth.”

The number enrolled in EFC services can fluctuate as youth move in and age out. At one point, the number enrolled in Sacramento County was more than 500, prior to the first group reaching 21.

“It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t have this before. Our goal is to give non-minor dependent foster youth assistance as best as we can, recognizing that they are adults who are coming from a very difficult situation where they’ve experienced a lot of trauma and other challenges. We don’t want to pull any safety net because this is more than their safety net; it’s their only net.” PAUL L. SEAVE, JUDGE SACRAMENTO SUPERIOR COURT

“In my role in the CASA program, I can’t say that we were surprised,” says Carol Noreen, executive director of Sacramento County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates Program, where volunteer mentors advocate for youth in the foster care system. “We didn’t think there were really any alternatives that the young people could take advantage of. A lot of the kids in extended foster care are there because there really are no other resources for them, family or otherwise. And if this system wasn’t there, they potentially would be homeless.”

The Cost of Implementation

The larger opt-in numbers required child welfare departments to add positions and shift resources to meet demand. According to Eric Branson, Placer County’s assistant director for Health and Human Services, Children’s System of Care, about 20 percent of the EFC program has been funded, with the county making up the $1 million difference from its general fund. “Even though AB 12 is a mandate, it isn’t fully funded or really funded much at all,” he says. But the connections and extended services are leading to better outcomes in high school graduation rates and a decreased risk for incarceration, teen pregnancy and dependence on public benefits, all of which place less financial burden on communities.

Child welfare departments contract with outside agencies to manage the transitional housing option for EFC. Rates vary depending on the county, but in Sacramento County, the three outside agencies receive $2,764-$3,474 per month to supply both housing and case management per youth. The agency makes the rent payment, and the youth receives a supplement of about $575-$650 each month to pay for utilities, food, transportation and incidentals. Weekly meetings with a transitional housing case manager and a monthly visit with a county social worker are required. A $35-$100 monthly contribution to a savings account is also part of the program. The supervised independent living placement option is the least restrictive and allows youth (who are deemed ready) to select and pay for their own housing and live independently. They receive a monthly stipend of $1,000 and must meet monthly with a county social worker.

Youth also have the option to continue to reside in any of the foster placements that were available to them as minors, but most are looking for more autonomy once they turn 18.

When Mykia V. turned 18, she had been in foster care for five years and wasn’t ready to be on her own but desired more independence. She enrolled in EFC for continued support, and after high school moved in with a roommate through the transitional housing program and began attending Sierra College. Now 20, she has since moved to San Jose to continue her education and has plans to apply to the nursing program at San Jose State. Sacramento County has worked out an arrangement with Santa Clara County to continue to provide EFC services for Mykia. “Without extended foster care, I’m not sure where I would be,” she says. “Extended foster care has helped me cover the cost of my housing and taught me how to budget and manage my bills. It’s helped me think about my future.”

Improved Outcomes

After AB 12 passed, Courtney, the University of Chicago professor, was hired by the state to conduct research on its implementation and outcomes. The California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study, conducted in partnership with the research team at the University of Chicago at Chapin Hall and the California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership, is the most comprehensive study on California youth in extended foster care. The research is part of a five-year study examining the experiences of California foster youth during the transition to adulthood. The most recent report was released in November 2018 and includes findings primarily based on youth after they turned 21.

“Without extended foster care, I’m not sure where I would be. Extended foster care has helped me cover the cost of my housing and taught me how to budget and manage my bills. It’s helped me think about my future.” MYKIA V. EXTENDED FOSTER CARE RECIPIENT

Researchers found that for each additional year a youth was in EFC, it increased their likelihood of completing a high school credential by about 8 percent and enrolling in college by about 10 percent, increased their length of employment, and added $404 in savings to their bank account. EFC also decreased the odds of being homeless or couch surfing by about 28 percent, becoming pregnant by about 15 percent, being arrested by about 41 percent, and being convicted of a crime by about 40 percent. 

Similar to the state, local counties have also seen better outcomes the longer youth stay in EFC. Through 2018 in Sacramento County, 82 percent that were enrolled in the EFC program all three years exited with a high school diploma. Through 2019 in Yolo County, it was 84 percent, and in Placer County, 74 percent. Before EFC, only 58 percent of foster youth graduated from high school by age 19.

Those exiting EFC with either a part-time or full-time job was 74 percent in Sacramento County and 67 percent in Placer and Yolo counties. Twenty-eight percent who exited the program enrolled in college in Sacramento, 20 percent were enrolled when they exited in Placer and 33 percent were enrolled in Yolo. And in all California counties, the majority exited EFC with housing and identified permanent connections.

For 22-year-old Monica W., the permanent connections she made in foster care continue to be a source of support. “I still talk to my social workers and my AB 12 worker and the majority of my foster parents,” she says. In EFC, Monica says she learned how to maintain a budget and pay her bills and was able to buy a car. In May 2019, she graduated from Sierra College with two Associate of Arts degrees and her emergency medical technician certification. She recently moved to South Carolina to be closer to her biological sister and is getting ready to enroll in paramedic school; she hopes to one day be an emergency room nurse. She also recently purchased a home with her boyfriend. “AB 12 was a big part of me being as successful as I am,” she says, “and having the opportunity to grow. I’m really grateful for that.” 

Even with its many positive outcomes, child welfare advocates say there is room for improvement with EFC. Young people who haven’t left the foster care system by 18 often have ongoing circumstances that make it difficult for them to succeed independently, particularly those with mental health challenges. “The hard starting point is they are adults,” says Seave, the Superior Court judge. “You can’t make an adult do anything. And people that have mental health issues are difficult to persuade that they need mental health services. So that’s a constant challenge.”

Noreen of CASA says that without stable mental health, it’s also hard for youth to maintain stability in school and work and even at their home sites. “If they have other issues going on, like mental health challenges, it makes it that much harder to help create the stability that they need, and that’s the foundation of the law, to give them extra time for building that stability. That’s why their connections with caring adults are so important.”

Courtney’s study has found no negative outcomes associated with remaining in EFC, but he says the implementation is still a work in progress. There are areas where the research showed EFC did not have an impact, such as with food insecurity, physical and sexual victimization, and persisting in college after entering. Courtney and his team are doing another follow-up survey with foster youth at age 23 and anticipate releasing the report in early 2020. 

“I think what’s working is that a number of states, including California, have implemented policies around allowing young people to remain in care, and those young people are choosing to continue to make use of the help they had when they were minors,” Courtney says. “But the care changes quite a bit when they are young adults living in the community on their own and with other young people. It takes time to figure out this brave new world that child welfare agencies have moved into. But the outcomes are moving in the right direction. And that’s a good thing.” 

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