Partners (Number 2, 2007)

Transitioning Youth from Foster Care to Successful Adulthood

youth graphic Foster youth aging out of the system have become one of the country's most vulnerable populations.

There are currently about 500,000 children in foster care across the country. Each year, approximately 20,000 youth, deemed legal adults at age 18, 'age out' of the foster care system. While the number of children in the foster care system has been declining, the number of youth aging out of the system continues to increase.

Most young people at age 18 still rely on family and community support to help them transition into adulthood. Foster youth, however, have no permanent family or support network to assist them as they age out of the system, and only limited assistance is available from the states to support their transition to independence. Many of these young people have limited education, few basic skills and no role models or adult mentors.

The issue
Young people leaving foster care face many more challenges than their peers who come from supportive families. Research indicates that four years after leaving foster care, 46 percent of these youth have not finished high school, 25 percent have been homeless, 42 percent have become parents themselves and fewer than 20 percent are completely self-supporting.1

Census data show that only 3 percent of young people who age out of the foster care system are likely to finish college, compared with 28 percent of the U.S. population. Young people leaving foster care disproportionately suffer from mental and other health problems and are more likely to be involved with criminal activities. These youth are often very isolated and face a future of living in poverty.

Affordable Housing for Former Foster Youth

Barriers to economic success
Young people coming out of the foster care system face a number of barriers that limit their opportunities for economic success. First, they often have low educational attainment and no work experience, so their job opportunities are limited. Second, many of these youth do not have a driver's license, which again limits their job opportunities. Third, many youth do not have access to basic health care.

Fourth, they do not have the financial resources needed to secure housing. These young people do not have supportive adults who can co-sign on an apartment lease or help them with rent deposits, so housing is always a significant concern. Finally, these youth have no financial safety net, and many lack basic life and financial management skills. Overcoming these barriers and helping these young people achieve economic success is critical for stabilizing this very vulnerable population.

Resources for youth aging out of foster care
Government officials, foundations and researchers are increasingly recognizing the challenges that youth aging out of foster care face and the need for greater resources to prepare them for the adult world. The largest federally funded program to assist these young people is the John H. Chafee (Chafee) Foster Care Independence Program. Created in 1999, this program provides states with funding to create and expand programs to assist youth transitioning out of foster care, up to age 21. States are required to provide a 20 percent local match for the federal funds.

"Door openers" connect youth aging out of foster care to housing, jobs, mentors and other opportunities that will help them gain financial independence.

Chafee funds are flexible, and states can tailor programs to meet the specific needs of their foster youth population. States have developed a range of services including educational programs, training, employment assistance and financial support to help those leaving foster care to become healthy, self-sufficient adults. While these funds have helped states address some of the needs of youth aging out of the foster care system, the funding is not sufficient to provide the comprehensive assistance needed by these youth.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (the 'Initiative') is another significant resource to assist youth leaving the foster care system. This national program brings together people and resources to help youth make the connections they need to assist with education, employment, health care, housing and supportive relationships. The Initiative is currently working in 10 communities across the country including Atlanta, Nashville and Tampa (a co-investment site with the Eckerd Family Foundation). In all communities, the Initiative encourages youth engagement, and local coordinators to work in their communities to develop partnerships and resources to provide a safety net for those transitioning out of foster care.

The center piece of the Initiative is the Opportunity Passport, which is designed to create new opportunities and financial resources for youth leaving foster care. The goal of the program is to help young people leaving foster care:

  • to become financially literate,
  • to gain experience using the mainstream banking system,
  • to build assets for education, housing or other expenses, and
  • to receive streamlined educational and vocational assistance.

The program includes three components: (1) personal debit accounts for short-term expenses, (2) matched savings accounts or Individual Development Account (IDA) and (3) "door openers" or services that connect youth aging out of foster care to housing, jobs, mentors and other opportunities that will help them gain financial independence.

Young people between the ages of 14 and 23 are eligible to participate in the Opportunity Passport program if they are in the child welfare system on their 14th birthday and have successfully completed the required financial literacy training. About 2,000 youth are enrolled in the Opportunity Passport program nationwide, and together, they have saved almost $1.5 million through IDAs.

The structure of the matched savings accounts is different in each community in terms of the amount the youth can save, the amount of the local match and the assets that can be purchased. However, the most common asset goal for the youth is a car, followed by rent deposits, educational expenses and health care expenses. The number of youth reaching their savings goal nationwide is continuing to increase.

Fostering Success provides services to Nashville youth
Each year, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services estimates that 200 youth age out of the foster care system in Davidson County, and many end up incarcerated or homeless. The Fostering Success program launched in Nashville, Tenn., at Vanderbilt University in 2002 provides former foster care youth access to education, employment, transportation, housing and other opportunities they need to become successful adults. Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative provided the initial funding for the program.

Fostering Success is a collaborative effort of many partners including Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, United Way of Metropolitan Nashville and several other nonprofit agencies in Nashville. The collaborative also receives significant support from community and business leaders across the city who offer assistance and resources to support youth aging out of the foster care system.

This Middle Tennessee program serves youth facing barriers to economic success common among youth aging out of the foster care system nationwide. Initial surveys of former foster youth enrolled in Fostering Success indicated that 1 in 3 youth did not have a GED and the majority did not have access to transportation, which is critical for finding a job.

growing boys
The Opportunity Passport, a central initiative of Fostering Success, is administered by Monroe Harding, a nonprofit agency in Nashville that has developed a one-stop shop for youth transitioning out of foster care. Currently more than 225 youth are enrolled in the Opportunity Passport, and 160 youth have met their savings goals and purchased assets worth $165,000. Opportunity Passport offers a 100 percent match for savings up to $1,000 each year for 3 years. The average match is $525. Most youth save for cars, housing, education and insurance. U.S. Bank has been a key supporter of this initiative in Nashville, hosting the IDA accounts for foster youth and providing those enrolled in the program with a personal bank account for their short term expenses.

The impact of Fostering Success has been significant for former foster care youth in Nashville. Through the Opportunity Passport, many have gained some financial stability. Follow-up surveys of participants in the program indicate that 53 percent of program participants are now living independently; 25 percent have finished high school or earned their GED; and 23 percent have completed some training or education after high school.2 Clearly, the prospects for youth who participate in this initiative are improving.

The success of this initiative has turned it from a pilot project into a sustainable community collaborative. Currently, Fostering Success partners are exploring options to expand the initiative across the state within the next three years.

Young people aging out of the foster care system face many of the same barriers as other youth coming from impoverished families, but they lack the traditional family and community support to help them transition into adulthood. As a result, former foster care youth often face a very bleak future of unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Funding to assist these youth is limited, but there is growing recognition that helping them as they leave the foster care system will reduce the future cost to society.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative illustrates the type of comprehensive strategy that is needed to engage community and business leaders in helping these youth transition out of foster care to become healthy, productive and financially self-sufficient adults.

This article was written by Jessica LeVeen Farr, regional community development manager in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch.


1 Based on data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative.

2 This data are all based on those who responded negatively to these questions initially; it is not based on everyone who is enrolled in the Opportunity Passport program. Thus, of those who were not living independently, 53 percent are now living independently and of those who had not finished high school/GED, 25 percent have now completed high school or earned their GED.