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Youth in Foster Care: An Invisible Underserved Population

For the past few weeks, I have been learning about an important, underserved group of youth in the United States: Foster Youth.

Public child welfare systems and nonprofit providers have made significant progress reducing the number of children and youth in foster care over the past 10 years. In fact, in 2000 approximately 550,000 children were in foster care in the U.S. and today there are approximately 420,000. However, the life outcomes of children that enter foster care, and particularly those who age out of the foster care system at age 18 or 21 (depending on the state), are dire. For example, Casey Family Programs reports estimate that only 50% of foster youth graduate from high school, and between 1 – 11% complete a postsecondary credential or degree.

As stated by one foster care advocate I spoke with last week, “Youth in foster care have one problem: they have no adult to parent them for a certain period of time. Every child needs parenting every day and every other intervention hinges on that.” While that sounds obvious, the systems and supports for youth in foster care often fail to fulfill the gap left by the parental void. And many youth change foster care placements multiple times while in care – only 25% of kids in care have 2 or fewer foster homes. Can you imagine moving families, homes and schools more than twice within a few years?

As a result, foster youth often lack a connection to a caring adult to provide the support, love, and compassion that they need. In addition, adults who could potentially help these youth – such as teachers – often do not know which children are foster youth in their schools and do not have expertise or training for how best to support the unique needs of these students. Without a consistent adult support to help navigate systems or advocate for their rights, many foster youth struggle tremendously.

One program that has made an impact on the education outcomes of foster youth was catalyzed by the Eckerd Foundation in Florida. This foundation piloted an initiative placing a guidance counselor in schools who was dedicated to working with foster youth. This counselor provided services such as ensuring student’s records were current, and helping to identify the courses a student needed for graduation. The pilot proved so helpful for students in foster care that after three years of foundation funding, the school decided to fund the program.
This pilot gave the foster youth a stable adult advocate who had expertise navigating the education system, regardless of the youth’s foster care home placement.

Unfortunately, programs focused specifically on improving outcomes for foster youth are few and far between, leaving many youth to fall through the cracks. We would love to learn about more initiatives that have had an impact on improving outcomes for foster youth. What initiatives have you seen, that have improved the educational outcomes for foster youth? Why were they successful? What would it take to replicate those programs more broadly?

Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Splansky Juster

Executive Director Collective Impact Forum