Foster Care

What happens to kids who age out of foster care?

Elisabeth Balistreri

Systems are not in place to effectively care for foster youth while they are in the system, nor to put them in a position for successful independence when they leave the system. Aging out should not be an option for foster youth who have not been prepared to care for and support themselves. The outcomes speak volumes.

23,000 children age out of foster care annually, instantly losing access to nearly every form of support.

This is what happens to them.

20% become instantly homeless.

Picture that. 20% of kids who age out of foster care become instantly homeless. They walk out of their foster home or residential institution with whatever they’ve managed to hold on while being shuffled from home to home--and have absolutely nothing to catch them. What a desperate, terrifying situation to be put in.

The vast majority of foster youth have faced immense obstacles to learning and personal development, leaving them ill equipped to take care of themselves as independent adults. Most have never been equipped with the personal knowledge and skills to even find the resources that could help them. 

Less than 3% earn a college degree by age 26.

Think back on a time when you were dealing with a personal or family issue--maybe you were facing the loss of a loved one, a sibling was critically ill in the hospital, or you were going through a nasty breakup. During that time, did you find it much more difficult to focus at work or in school?

For kids growing up in foster care, there’s always something much bigger on their minds drawing focus away from schoolwork. The instability and trauma these children are facing, combined with unmet mental health needs and high rates of learning differences, provides massive barriers to education; only 53% graduate high school--compared to 83% of the general population. They are at the greatest risk of dropping out of school of any student group--3 times greater than low-income children. Less than 3% earn a college degree by 26.

Only 50% find employment by age 24.

Half of all foster youth who age out of the system are able to find a job that can support them. Those who do find employment tend not to earn much money. Those same obstacles to learning that cause so many foster youth to drop out of school are leaving these children undereducated and unqualified for jobs. High risk for substance abuse, crime victimization, and being preyed upon by human traffickers leave many unable to even seek employment.

60% of young women who age out end up in the sex industry.

With low prospects of employment and few career skills, many turn to the sex industry to support themselves. Sex work is a familiar avenue for many of these young women; 60% of all sex trafficking victims have a history in the child welfare system. 

Human traffickers are known to prey upon foster youth, who are easy targets because they struggle with feeling unloved and unwanted and lack the support systems to protect them. The average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12 years old.  For many of these young women who age out of foster care, entering the sex industry is only a return to what they’ve known in their youth.

70% of young women are pregnant by 21.

Given the high risk of sexual exploitation in this group, it’s unsurprising, yet deeply troubling, that 70% of these young women who age out of foster care become pregnant by 21. These young women are barely able to survive on their own--let alone raise children with so little support. Despite the efforts of these young mothers, these pregnancies often only perpetuate the intergenerational poverty and neglect that sent them into the foster care system in the first place.

25% of youth who age out are dealing with PTSD

Compared to 4% of the general population, 25% of foster youth who age out of the system are dealing with unaddressed PTSD. The vast majority of foster youth enter the system because of abuse or neglect, but even for those who have not been exposed to trauma, the foster care system can be an extremely traumatizing place. Uncertainty, a lack of healthy and stable relationships with adults, and the risk of abuse within foster care leaves many children with untreated PTSD after leaving the system.

Mental health care is the greatest unmet need for foster youth; 80% of foster youth experience significant mental health issues compared to 18-22% of the general population.

Most foster homes--as well as the foster care system in general--are simply not equipped to support youth facing mental health problems; therefore, traumatized foster youth are never given the resources and individual attention needed to heal. When these children leave the foster care system, their unmet mental health needs remain unmet and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

25% will be incarcerated within 2 years of aging out.

The “foster-care to prison pipeline” is swallowing up unprecedented numbers of foster youth into the criminal justice system; 1 in 4 foster youth go to prison after aging out of foster care.

Being labelled a “foster child” plants powerful preconceptions in the minds of every person these children interact with--foster parents, teachers, healthcare providers, and especially criminal justice practitioners. In many cases, foster youth are viewed as more dangerous and volatile than other kids, and people treat them as such; for example, instead of mediating and de-escalating when a fight breaks out in a foster home, the police get called and the child receives a label that can be even harder to shake: juvenile delinquent.

Certain groups of foster youth are at greater risk of incarceration; foster youth placed in group homes are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated, 90% of youth with 5 or more foster placements will enter the criminal justice system, and Black foster youth--who are already vastly over-represented in the foster care system--are at greater risk for incarceration as well.

It’s easy for people who interact with foster youth to see some of their destructive behaviors without understanding the driving force behind them--that these children are struggling with intense emotional turmoil and trauma, and maladaptive behaviors are often attempts at coping with the loss and fear they’re experiencing. Lashing out and behaving irrationally are not signs that these are bad kids who need to be punished; they’re signs that these children need compassion and guidance to find more productive ways to deal with their traumatic circumstances.

Systems are not in place to effectively care for foster youth while they are in the system, nor to put them in a position for successful independence when they leave the system. Aging out should not be an option for foster youth who have not been prepared to care for and support themselves. The outcomes speak volumes. 

Aging out is not an option at House of Providence. The children we care for are supported and allowed to heal on their own timeline. Explore our website to learn more about our mission and find out how you can get involved!

Until every child has a home

We exist to instill hope in children who have only known the intense instability of foster care by emulating the unconditional love of a healthy family to them.

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