Extended Foster Care Explained

Posted May 24, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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On any given day, the U.S. foster care system includes nearly 440,000 children and youth.

Most young people are unprepared to live on their own as soon as they turn 18. For kids in foster care, independence without adult guidance is particularly challenging. It arrives at a time when they  graduating high school and preparing to navigate higher education or enter the working world.

Recognizing this, many states offer extended foster care — an approach that allows youth to remain in or re-enter care beyond their 18th birthday. This change gives young people more time to successfully transition to adulthood while also affording the child welfare system more time to secure a loving and permanent support network for each youth in care.

To be effective, foster care for older youth and young adults must look different than traditional foster care for young children. When systems prepare young people for adulthood, engage young people in making decisions about their future and provide the relationships and resources youth need to graduate from high school and contribute in the workforce, they are investing in well-being and economic potential for generations. When young women in and emerging from foster care have access to financial assistance for education, they are less likely to have first and repeat births at an early age.

At what age does foster care stop?

In places without extended foster care, young people have traditionally exited foster care when they turn 18.

In 2019, more than 20,000 young people left foster care without a permanent family, often without supportive adults in their lives. This is known as aging out.

Ideally, a young person in foster care will be reunited with their family, placed with a relative or legal guardian, or adopted by foster parents, relatives or a person previously unknown to them. Building lifelong family connections for children and youth is a critical job for child welfare systems.

What happens when youth age out of foster care?

When young people age out of foster care, they often lose access to familiar services and supports. Yet, these same youth often face more barriers on the road to adulthood when compared to their peers. For instance, they run a greater risk of experiencing:

  • housing instability and homelessness;
  • a shorter or unfulfilled academic trajectory;
  • unemployment and unstable employment;
  • physical and behavioral health issues;
  • loss of health care access; and
  • involvement in the criminal justice system.

Can you stay in foster care after age 18?

Most states offer some form of extended foster care that supports young people beyond the age of 18. At the same time, this extension is an underutilized option, according to Child Trends.

What federal laws help states fund extended foster care?

The federal government provides funding that enables states to address the unique needs and experiences of older youth who are transitioning out of foster care. Four recent federal policies to do so include:

  • The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, which provided states with flexible funding to help young people, ages 18 to 21, who were transitioning from foster care.
  • The Fostering Transitions to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which expanded funding to states that elected to extend foster care support to age 21.
  • The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, which expanded eligibility for transitional services under Chafee, including the option for states to provide aftercare services to age 23.
  • The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 — passed during the coronavirus pandemic — which provided a one-time allotment of $400 million in additional funding for Chafee programs offering housing, education and direct assistance to current and former foster youth, and temporarily expanded eligibility through age 26.

Why is extended foster care important?

Research shows that extending support into the first few years of adulthood can make a clear, positive difference in the lives of youth in care. Young people gain more time to develop critical life skills, relationships and resources that can help them thrive as adults. Child welfare agencies gain more time to pursue permanency and prevent having a young person age out of the system alone and unsupported.

What services are available through extended foster care?

Extended foster care services and resources vary from state to state. This programming is designed to help young people navigate:

  • Academic needs, including applying for college, securing a tutor or obtaining financial aid.
  • Employment-related issues, such as finding jobs, writing resumes, submitting applications and understanding employee benefits.
  • Health care decisions, including enrolling in Medicaid and selecting a health-care power-of-attorney.
  • Home management matters, including understanding meal planning, housekeeping and house maintenance.
  • Financial concerns, such as developing a budget, opening a credit card and protecting a credit score.
  • Life skills, such as obtaining a driver’s license.
  • Community services and support.
  • Social relationships and networks.

Young people in extended foster care may also receive:

  • Room and board financial assistance, including rent deposits, utilities and other household start-up expenses.
  • Education financial assistance, including allowances to purchase textbooks and other educational supplies; tuition assistance; scholarships; payment for educational support services and tests.

Are young people helped by extended foster care?

"Continuing support through early adulthood leads to better long-term outcomes for youth in foster care across the board — from education and employment to financial and housing security," says Todd Lloyd, a senior policy associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Below are select findings from two studies — one by Child Trends and one by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago — that explore the benefits of extended foster care.

Extended care and education outcomes

A 2019 study by Child Trends compares how young people in extended foster care fared versus same-age peers who had already exited the system. The study found that, at age 21, youth in extended care were:

  • three times more likely to be enrolled in school;
  • 1.4 times more likely to be receiving educational aid; and
  • three times less likely to be disconnected from school and work.

A 2018 study by Chapin Hall found that, for each year a person spends in extended foster care, their likelihood of earning a high school credential grows by 8% and their likelihood of enrolling in college jumps by about 10%.

Extended care and housing stability

In the Child Trends study: 21-year-olds in extended foster care were 2.7 times less likely to have experienced homelessness when compared to their earlier-exiting peers.

In the Chapin Hall study: extended foster care is linked to a lower risk of couch surfing or homelessness between the ages of 17 to 21. The difference? A 28% drop for every year that an individual spends in extended care.

Extended care and early parenthood

In the Child Trends study: 21-year-olds in extended care were two times less likely to become young parents versus their earlier-exiting peers.

In the Chapin Hall study: individuals slashed their risk of early parenthood by 28% for every year that they spent in extended care.

Extended care and employment

In the Child Trends study: 21-year-olds in extended care were 1.3 times more likely to be employed relative to their earlier-exiting peers.

The Chapin Hall study found that, for every year that an individual spent in extended care, they:

  • increased the number of quarters they were employed between ages 18 and 21;
  • increased the amount of money in their bank accounts by approximately $404;
  • decreased their need-based public food assistance by more than $700; and
  • lowered their risk of experiencing an additional economic hardship from ages 17 to 21 by about 12%.

Extended foster care and racial equity

Extended foster care also may be an effective tool for reducing racial and ethnic disparities in some outcome areas for young adults, according to Child Trends. For example: Black youth who stay in foster care beyond age 18 fare on par or better than their white peers in select employment and education outcomes.

The topic is deserving of further review, the research organization notes, and will require child welfare agencies to tailor their supports and services to accommodate the unique needs of young people and families of color at every turn.

What states offer extended foster care?

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, passed in late 2020, requires all states to extend foster care support through Sept. 30, 2021, and allow youth who have exited foster care during the pandemic to return to care. This change supersedes existing state policy on the age that youth exit care or which subgroups of youth are eligible for extended care. At the same time, it increases federal support — setting aside $400 million for states — to aid individuals between the ages of 14 and 26 who are in or transitioning from foster care.

Use the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s fact sheet to help calculate the number of young people who qualify for this assistance in your state.

More extended foster care resources from the Casey Foundation

In addition to reviewing the resources below, consider subscibing to the Foundation's Child Welfare enewsletter to stay up-to-date with our blog posts, publications and data.

Experts Talk Developing a Model for Extended Foster Care and Re-Entry Policies

Database Offers Resources for Extending Foster Care for Older Youth

Fostering Youth Transitions

Promising Program Models for Extended Foster Care and Transition Services

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