Report calls for anyone in care at 18 to be eligible for services until 21st birthday

All Louisiana youth in foster care on their 18th birthday should be eligible to remain in care until they turn 21, a legislatively-created panel responsible for studying the issue said in a new report.

After months of studying the negative outcomes faced by youth when they leave the foster care system and the feasibility of extending care, the Task Force on Extending the Age of Foster Care to 21 recommends Louisiana extend the age of care and provide intensive services to aid in youths' transition to adulthood.

In making the change, Louisiana would join 28 other states that provide foster care services to all youth until age 21, a move that gained traction in Louisiana with the passage of two key pieces of legislation in 2018.

In addition to passing a measure (SCR10) by Sen. Regina Barrow requiring the state to study extending the age of care, the Legislature passed a bill (Act 649) by Sen. Ryan Gatti that extended foster care to age 21 for anyone in high school or working toward an equivalent credential.

The task force recommended broadening the program to all youth, an endeavor that would require an additional $3 million in state dollars to implement. The cost would decrease over time due to the elimination of group care and an expected decline in the number of youth aging out of care annually.

Youth who decline to enter extended care when they turn 18, or who opt to leave the program, would be allowed to re-enter, as long as they continue to meet the eligibility criteria.

"It's fair to say these recommendations would make 'aging out' at 18 a thing of the past, and that's truly life-changing for young people in foster care," Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said.

In August, Gov. John Bel Edwards joined Walters, Barrow, Gatti and child and youth advocates in launching the effort to extend the age of foster care and naming a task force to lead the effort. The panel, led by co-chairs Walters and Barrow, worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to survey the best programs underway in other states.

It recommended implementing the Youth Villages YVLifeSet model, the only proven case management program like it in the country.

In October, Youth Villages, a national nonprofit, awarded Louisiana $3 million over three years to expand effective services for transition-age foster youth. Some 150 Louisiana youth turned 18 while in foster care in 2018. Youth Villages will train DCFS staff as specialists in the YVLifeSet model. Specialists will manage small caseloads and meet with young people in person at least once a week at the location of the youth's choosing to help them establish and meet goals around education, employment, housing, health, relationships and independent living skills.

The goal is to help youth avoid some of the devastating outcomes that many encounter without resources and support. According to the task force's report, national research has shown that youth who exit foster care at age 18 fall prey to a host of negative outcomes, compared to their peers in the general population. Among them:

---More than one in five will become homeless after age 18.

---Only 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19 (compared to 87 percent of all 19-year-olds).

---Young adults at age 19, no longer in care, have higher rates of recent alcohol abuse, substance dependence and substance abuse than those still in care. This suggests much of the difference is due to recent problems experienced by 19-year-olds after leaving care.

---Seventy-one percent of young women are pregnant by 21, facing higher rates of unemployment, criminal conviction, public assistance and involvement in the child welfare system.

---Age the age of 24, only half are employed.

---Fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25 (compared to 28 percent of all 25-year-olds).

---One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving the foster care system.

"It's clear, without our help and intervention, most of these young people won't succeed," said Barrow. "We can help them build better lives, and we will." The legislative committee she chairs, the Select Committee on Women and Children, held hearings on the plight of youth aging out of foster care in 2017 and 2018. The testimony of former foster youth at these hearings is credited with paving the way for legislation to extend the age of foster care.

Barrow plans to introduce legislation this year to extend foster care and to fund the programs needed to help youth transition to adulthood.

"When you get together and work together, anything is possible for our foster kids," said Gatti, who will co-author the bill.

The task force report cites evidence of positive outcomes for youth who remain in foster care beyond age 18. A Chapin Hall study found that extending care to 21 is associated with a 38 percent reduction in the risk of girls in foster care becoming pregnant between 16 and 19 years old. Another study found that in systems where foster care has been extended to age 21, boys in foster care who become fathers are more involved with their children.

Young adults who remained in care past the age of 18 were more likely to be enrolled in school and reported having more social support. "They were less likely than those who had left care to experience economic hardships, food insecurity, homelessness, psychiatric hospitalization and criminal justice system involvement," the report said.

There also was a positive fiscal impact for states. A Washington state study found a return on investment of $1.35 for every dollar spent on that state's Foster Care to 21 Program.

For a link to the full report of the Task Force on Extending the Age of Foster Care to 21, visit www.dcfs.la.gov/ExtendingTheAgeReport.

DCFS has online resources developed especially for youth and those who support them. Visit YouthLink.la.gov for more information. A downloadable booklet is available here.

Contributed by La. Department of Children and Family Services