Jim Theofelis is a guest contributor and Executive Director of The Mockingbird Society
Imagine a world where your child is forced to leave your home at age 18. You can no longer provide the love, support and roof you worked so hard for throughout your child’s life. On his or her 18th birthday, your child must instantly transition into adulthood with little more than a suitcase of their belongings. Would your child be ready?
This is the reality for too many of the nearly 10,000 children and adolescents who have been removed from their families and placed in the foster care system because of abuse or neglect. They enter the foster care system in a time of crisis only to be kicked out at age 18, unprepared for the crises to come.
It is unacceptable that in a society where approximately half of all youth live with their parents until age 24, we expect those who have experienced PTSD-inducing childhood trauma to be the ones surviving completely on their own at age 18 – with no family to fall back on when things get rough. And what happens to these youth? Study after study demonstrates that they end up homeless. In its most recent annual survey, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated that one of every eleven youth from foster care will experience being homeless.
The Mockingbird Society, in collaboration with community partners, foster parents and legislators, is laser focused on reversing the longstanding pattern of Washington discharging youth from foster care into homelessness. This pattern is not unique to Washington. In fact, it is a national epidemic. The NAEH has rightly identified stopping foster care systems from this practice as a key strategy for ending youth homelessness in America.
In 2006, Washington established the Foster Care to 21 pilot program thanks to forward-thinking legislators. This program allowed up to 150 youth to remain in foster care to age 21 to pursue their post-secondary education. The evaluation results are consistent with national research as well as what most parents and grandparents might say: youth who had safe housing and other supports did significantly better than those who were literally on their own. Not only did they reduce their negative behaviors such as stealing, early parenting, and reliance on public assistance, but they also increased their academic achievement, gained valuable work experience, and began the successful transition to healthy adulthood. In fact, for every Washington tax dollar invested in this service, our community received a return on investment of $1.35. Ensuring youth have safe housing to utilize as a foundation for achievement makes both fiscal and common sense.
Thanks to the bi-partisan support of our Legislature, we have made great gains ensuring foster youth have the opportunity to remain in foster care to age 21. Currently, youth who pursue their secondary or post-secondary education are eligible to remain in foster care to age 21. But certain populations don’t get this support.
Now, we are asking our elected-leaders and community members alike to provide this opportunity to those youth who need it most. Current proposed legislation (Extended Foster Care HB 1302/SB 5405) would extend this support to the remaining youth who are not able, or not yet ready, for the educational track. This includes youth who have serious medical issues including cognitive or physical disabilities, youth who have significant barriers to employment or academia, and youth who are working part time but still unable to afford full independence.
Earlier this year I testified in favor of HB 1302 with a courageous young man with a seizure disorder which would have qualified him for Extended Foster Care had this legislation been in effect when he turned 18. He modestly said that his condition made things more complicated after leaving care, and that pursuing his education or employment was not a realistic option for him at 18. Soon after his testimony he had a minor seizure, right in the hearing room. Are we really going to kick youth like him out at age 18?
Imagining a world where we cannot provide our children the support they need to be successful, independent adults is a nightmare. The moment the state decides to remove a child from their home, that child becomes our collective responsibility as a community. As parents, our care and support guides our own children safely into young adulthood. Our commitment should be no less for youth in foster care.
I call on legislators and community members alike to fulfill this responsibility and support Extended Foster Care, House Bill 1302 and Senate Bill 5405.