Extended Foster Care Explained

Updated May 20, 2023 | Posted May 24, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog extendedfostercareexplained 2021

On any giv­en day, the U.S. fos­ter care sys­tem includes more than 390,000 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 are 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 nav­i­gate the crit­i­cal 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 2021, more than 19,000 young peo­ple left fos­ter care with­out a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly, often with­out sup­port­ive adults in their lives. This is known as eman­ci­pa­tion or aging out” of the system.

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, men­tal 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.

Pro­vid­ing this extend­ed sup­port into young adult­hood is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for youth of col­or and LGBTQ youth who are over­rep­re­sent­ed in the fos­ter care sys­tem and are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence neg­a­tive outcomes.

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 2021 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 512%.

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 21 to 23. The dif­fer­ence? A 19% drop for every year that an indi­vid­ual spends in extend­ed care.

Extend­ed Care and Employ­ment, Eco­nom­ic Outcomes

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 21 and 23;
  • increased total earn­ings between ages 21 and 23 by about $2,300–$3,200;
  • increased the amount of mon­ey in their bank accounts by approx­i­mate­ly $650; and
  • reduced the chances of being food inse­cure by 21%.

Extend­ed Care and Oth­er Outcomes

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: every year that they spent in extend­ed care increased the chances that youth felt they had enough peo­ple to turn to for advice or emo­tion­al and tan­gi­ble sup­port, and reduced the like­li­hood that youth had been arrest­ed by about 28%.

A study of Cal­i­for­nia youth in fos­ter care pro­vides fur­ther evi­dence that pro­vid­ing sup­ports until ear­ly adult­hood may con­tribute to reduc­ing the risk of juve­nile jus­tice involve­ment for young people.

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, tem­porar­i­ly required all states to extend fos­ter care sup­port through 2021, and allowed youth who had exit­ed fos­ter care dur­ing the pan­dem­ic to return to care. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2021 fact sheet helped states cal­cu­late the num­ber of young peo­ple who qual­i­fied for this assis­tance. Since then, a 2022 sum­ma­ry by the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s Child Wel­fare Infor­ma­tion Gate­way report­ed that 48 states, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia and Amer­i­can Samoa allow fos­ter youth to remain in care after age 18. In most of these loca­tions, youth may remain in care until age 21

More Extend­ed Fos­ter Care Resources From the Casey Foundation

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

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