As parents, we know that our role in our children's lives goes far beyond providing them with the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. We also nurture and guide them, and as they grow older we expose them to new experiences and opportunities, encourage them to succeed in school, develop healthy relationships, and build life skills. Although adolescence can be challenging for both kids and parents, every positive interaction we have is a critical opportunity to establish the building blocks that our teens need to succeed down the road in school, work, and family life.
Now imagine what it's like to be a teenager in foster care. As these young people approach legal adulthood, they face tremendous obstacles, including the unrealistic expectation that they will be able to succeed on their own when they turn 18.
In fact, over the past decade, more than 200,000 teenagers have aged out of foster care at 18 - often without achieving permanent family connections or those critical building blocks of support. Consequently, too many of them face challenges immediately upon leaving foster care - challenges that don't just affect this cohort of young people, but that affect us all.
A study issued in May 2013 by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative -- and illustrated in a new infographic -- shows that, on average, for every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs like public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages to a community over that person's lifetime. Do the math and you can conservatively estimate that this problem incurs almost $8 billion in social costs to the United States every year.
It's time to do something. The case for investing in youth aging out of foster care is a powerful one. Major savings are not only possible, but they are achievable in the relatively near term. The most costly outcomes -- and the ones that hurt young people the most -- come as a result of events, decisions, and behaviors that occur within a few years or even within days of leaving foster care, like becoming homeless or dropping out of school. For many of these youth, the challenges that start in their teen years and early 20s, such as academic failure or unplanned pregnancies, continue throughout the rest of their lives.
So what can we do? Like many social problems, the answer lies in prevention. It is important to recognize that the long-term cost of the status quo is enormous, not just on the public coffers but on the lives of young people who deserve better opportunities to succeed in life as productive members of our society. While they face seemingly insurmountable odds, they deserve our support and a serious investment in their futures. Indeed, the most costly solution available is to do nothing, or to do too little, too late.
The first step to solving this problem must be to extend foster care services beyond age 18. Federal resources are available to states for this purpose and a number of states across the country are leveraging these funds and beginning to implement changes. But to achieve better results, extending foster care services beyond 18 must be done right.
What does "doing it right" mean? First, foster care services for teens and young adults must be designed differently than the foster care services currently offered to young children, for whom safety and security are paramount. Those responsible for designing foster care systems at the state level should collaborate with young people in designing extended care to ensure that the supports and opportunities fit their needs as emerging adults. For example, state policies should establish supervised independent living options for youth aged 18 to 21, and allow them permission to re-enter foster care after a period of trial independence if they need further support. Policies should also ensure that services and supports cultivate the skills that young people need to succeed, like financial literacy and asset building.
Young people who have spent their teen years in foster care often have mixed feelings upon turning age 18. They may fear being all on their own, but many also are eager to leave a system that they associate with feelings of stigma and isolation. Young people will voluntarily choose to remain in foster care beyond age 18 only if the services and opportunities available meet their needs as emerging adults. In other words, when it comes to extending foster care, quality - not quantity - is what really matters.
While we live in an era with no shortage of intractable problems, improving the odds for older youth in foster care is different because it's achievable, and most importantly, it's the right thing to do. Just like all kids, teenagers in foster care deserve continued support, access to positive education and work experiences, and the opportunity to make decisions about their own lives.
Through the Success Beyond 18 campaign, we're already starting to see results as states and communities come together to help kids in foster care build better futures - but we need your help. Raise your voice in support of our efforts. Help us build a drumbeat for action as we call upon states to extend foster care services and "do it right." To learn more, visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Follow Gary Stangler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jimcaseyyouth