This post was co-authored with Beth Morrow, Director of Health IT Initiatives for The Children's Partnership.
May is National Foster Care Month, a time when we recognize the many foster parents, family members, policymakers, child welfare professionals, and others who help youth in foster care. Additionally, this month serves as a reminder that not all children are supported by a loving family and stable community that helps them transition into adulthood.
Foster youth often begin their early years facing difficult circumstances which can lead them to endure significant disadvantages in their adult lives. In fact, nearly 60 percent of children in foster care experience a chronic medical condition, and one-quarter suffer from three or more chronic health conditions. Not only do they suffer from high rates of chronic illness, but they have lower educational attainment, higher instances of teen pregnancy, and a greater likelihood of becoming homeless than their peers who live with permanent families. Such factors increase the challenge they face in setting up a stable job and living situation when they transition to life on their own.
In an effort to alleviate some of the difficulties faced by youth in foster care, Congress passed legislation in 2008 (called the Fostering Connections Act) to extend foster care from age 18 to 21. This extension of care allows foster youth more time to develop the critical skills they need to lead independent adult lives - whether it's through earning a college degree, vocational training, or working a full-time job. However, even with this legislation and some exciting new efforts in California and other states, child welfare agencies often don't have the resources to effectively engage youth in newly available services and programs, such as job training. And despite all best intentions, when youth leave the foster care system as adults, they are typically only given a sheaf of papers that detail their complicated histories. These records are easily lost and usually incomplete, which often creates burdens these young adults must carry for life.
To combat this difficult aspect of the foster youth's transition process, a handful of counties in California are engaged in initiatives to make electronic records accessible to foster youth and leverage resources for this population -- an "electronic backpack" for storing important documents and information. The virtual backpack allows those providing services to children in foster care to more easily share information and communicate electronically in a manner that protects their privacy, while also opening opportunities to engage foster youth and foster parents. This backpack will enable youth to build a "user-friendly" repository of materials that can be utilized to apply for jobs and college, prove eligibility for financial aid, update their family health history, or connect with loved ones.
Among others, an innovative project in Sacramento County is currently testing how an electronic backpack can be used effectively as part of transition planning for the county's foster youth, while a ground-breaking effort in Ventura County is developing the backpack as part of a broader electronic record system. Such initiatives, if adopted widely, could significantly lighten the load for these youth while assisting foster families and child welfare agencies in fulfilling their responsibilities under the Fostering Connections Act.
In California and other states, the use of electronic records and electronic backpacks would be a welcome adjustment to the foster care system. As children and youth continue to age out of the foster care system, it's becoming increasingly important for public agencies to be forward-thinking and adopt new technologies that help foster youth make a smoother transition to adulthood.