There are 14,000 Arizona youths in foster care. Few fully understand what life looks like once they leave the system at 18.
Their brains are not fully formed when they reach this critical age, and most youths in foster care have experienced some sort of trauma. Perhaps that trauma is the reason they entered care. Perhaps they were traumatized by being ripped from a familiar family setting and placed in the care of strangers.
As a result, only 3% to 4% of youths who age out of foster care will earn a college degree by age 26. One in five of these youths will become homeless after turning 18.
Children in foster care are twice as likely to experience PTSD as war veterans, and they are twice as likely to have a baby by 19.
Those who age out of foster care are forced to handle difficult issues and tasks without any support. This means that when “typical” 19-year-olds may be changing their major for the second time, young adults who have experienced foster care remain focused on where they will sleep and how they will pay their rent, wash their clothes and afford groceries.
They are forced into survival mode.
Many need support beyond age 18
All 50 states must provide food, clothing, shelter and medical coverage for children, but only until age 18. Some continue offering services up to 20 or 21, but young people must ask to remain a ward in the state’s custody to receive them. In Arizona, this is called signing a voluntary.
This is wrong, because it implies the system doesn’t want you past age 18. In a growth phase where their brains are still developing, many youths in foster care choose to prove that they can make it out in the world, alone – often with disastrous effects.
Roughly 8% of homeless individuals are between ages 18 and 24, according to Project HOME, an organization that aims to break the cycle of homelessness. And chronically homeless can cost taxpayers $35,578 per year, per person, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
There is an additional cost to taxpayers when we fail our youths and they have encounters with the criminal justice system. The Justice Policy Institute reports that it costs up to $407 per day per person to incarcerate a human being.
It’s time to change the model.
Flipping the model could be a win-win
Arizona could be the first state to do it, by continuing to offer the services it already provides until 21, unless youths petition to be removed at 18. This would essentially flip the model from how it is now – having them opt out of extended services instead of opting in.
Psychologists tell us that the best way to combat trauma is with resilience, the ability to spring back after difficulties. We also know that resilience can be taught.
At ResilientMe, our priority is on providing youths from foster care a fully loaded toolbox to navigate life’s challenges and pave the way for a successful adult life.
Having grown up in poverty and in foster care to parents who struggled with substance abuse, resilience saved my life. During the time I have been working with this population, I have seen lives changed.
But we need more systemic changes.
Flipping the model is a good start, because it would provide youths with a safety net of support for more time and give them a stronger launch pad into adult life. The change should not require additional funding, because the state is already offering these services.
It would be a win-win for young people in foster care and taxpayers alike.
Naketa Ross is a Phoenix Union school board member, certified clinical trauma specialist, and founder of ResilientMe, an organization that helps foster kids. On Twitter: @NaketaRoss