South Carolina Moves to Strengthen Extended Foster Care

Posted June 1, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signs new extended foster care expansion law

Young leaders joined South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster as he signs new extended foster care law (Photo provided by the state's Department of Social Services)

There’s a new law in South Car­oli­na — one that aims to help young peo­ple make a smoother, more suc­cess­ful leap from fos­ter care to adult­hood. The leg­is­la­tion paves the way for the state to tap into a sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing source — the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — to help cov­er the costs of its extend­ed fos­ter care pro­gram­ming, which serves young adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

Pri­or to pass­ing this law, South Car­oli­na foot­ed the full bill for its extend­ed fos­ter care ser­vices. As of May 1, 2022, 164 young adults across the state were uti­liz­ing this support.

Now, with fed­er­al dol­lars added to the mix, offi­cials antic­i­pate hir­ing more case­work­ers and tai­lor­ing sup­port to meet the needs of more youth, says Con­nel­ly-Anne Ragley, who directs com­mu­ni­ca­tions and exter­nal affairs for the state’s Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices, which has received tech­ni­cal assis­tance from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Youth Advo­cate for Improv­ing Extend­ed Care — and Succeed

We, as fos­ter youth, deserve a safe space, no mat­ter our age,” says Sier­ra Burns, 20, who is in extend­ed fos­ter care in South Car­oli­na. Burns has been active with the state’s youth advi­so­ry coun­cil and advo­cat­ed for the new leg­is­la­tion along­side oth­er coun­cil members.

When the bill was signed into law on May 11, 2022, Burns attend­ed the cer­e­mo­ny and shared her sto­ry about aging out of care.

I felt I was ready,” Burns recalls of her leap to inde­pen­dence and out of the fos­ter care sys­tem. But, she quick­ly learned oth­er­wise. I need­ed emer­gency hous­ing two months after I turned 18. With­out reach­ing out, I would have been home­less and would have been unable to pro­vide food or any oth­er basic needs for myself.”

Today, Burns says that she feels bet­ter pre­pared for adult­hood as she nears age 21, and she wants her peers to enjoy this same sense of security. 

Trau­ma does not dis­ap­pear once we turn 18,” she told the crowd on hand for the bill-sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny. I want you all to know, from a youth per­spec­tive, this is a huge step of progress that will make future youths’ lives change —for the better.”

The Nation­al Pic­ture for Extend­ed Fos­ter Care

Near­ly 15 years after fed­er­al sup­port became avail­able for extend­ed fos­ter care, 49 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia have adopt­ed such pro­gram­ming. Two excep­tions — Okla­homa and Puer­to Rico — still lack sim­i­lar pro­gram­ming for youth who turn 18 while in care.

Despite these gains, more than half of the old­er teens exit­ing fos­ter care each year — an esti­mat­ed 20,000 young peo­ple nation­al­ly — are thrust into inde­pen­dence upon reach­ing their state’s age of major­i­ty. The risk of eman­ci­pa­tion varies: Com­pared to their white peers, Black teens are 24% more like­ly and Lati­no teens 17% more like­ly to age out of care, accord­ing to nation­al data from 2020.

Like Burns, many eman­ci­pat­ed youth strug­gle with­out the safe­ty net and sup­port of per­ma­nent fam­i­ly, guardians or kin care­givers. Their intro­duc­tion to adult­hood is mired with increased rates of home­less­ness, hunger, aca­d­e­m­ic inter­rup­tions, crim­i­nal activ­i­ty, missed med­ical care, unwant­ed preg­nan­cy and oth­er harms, research shows.

Even when state pro­gram­ming is avail­able, young peo­ple don’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit from it. For exam­ple: Just 25% of eli­gi­ble 19-year-olds were uti­liz­ing their state’s extend­ed care pro­grams before the pan­dem­ic, accord­ing to a Casey Foun­da­tion analy­sis. A sig­nif­i­cant but short-lived change occurred dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, with Con­gress pass­ing a tem­po­rary mora­to­ri­um on youth aging out of care. This stay expired in fall 2021.

Two Steps for Law­mak­ers to Consider 

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers look­ing to do more can fol­low South Carolina’s exam­ple and com­bine exist­ing state and fed­er­al resources to bet­ter serve young peo­ple in extend­ed care, says Leslie Gross, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Fam­i­ly Well-Being Strat­e­gy Group.

Child wel­fare sys­tems are respon­si­ble for build­ing a stronger bridge to adult­hood for all youth in their care,” Gross explains. A com­bi­na­tion of greater fed­er­al and state part­ner­ship and invest­ment is nec­es­sary to ensure that every young per­son who reach­es age 18 while in fos­ter care has the com­pre­hen­sive and ongo­ing sup­port they need to thrive as adults.”

Beyond lever­ag­ing fed­er­al resources, says Gross, states can also fol­low South Carolina’s exam­ple in anoth­er way — by engag­ing youth in the design and deliv­ery of effec­tive programming.”

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