11/05/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Antwone Fisher 's Story Shows Why Young People in Foster Care Deserve a Better Path

Ten years ago, the movie Antwone Fisher opened in theaters across the country, revealing, for the first time to many, the challenges young adults in our foster care system face. Earlier this year, I had the honor of testifying before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee alongside Antwone Fisher himself, who was there to share his story as a case study for those charged with crafting our country's child welfare policies.

Born to a teen mother in an Ohio correctional facility, Mr. Fisher moved between foster families, an orphanage, and reform school during his young life, experiencing significant abuse along the way. Upon aging out of foster care at age 18, a caseworker surfaced to inform Fisher that he was on his own -- pointing him to a nearby homeless shelter. After several stressful, uncertain years on the streets of Cleveland, Fisher entered the U.S. Navy, where he found the strength and support to build a better life. As he explained,

While in the Navy I filled up on self-esteem and confidence. I grew into a responsible man... I benefited from the Navy's structure and the mentorship of senior members as well as my contemporaries.

For Antwone Fisher, the Navy served as a critical support system -- a place where he developed confidence and a sense of belonging, and a place that helped him identify where he wanted his life to go. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of young people have aged out of foster care at the young age of 18, just like Fisher -- many without achieving support systems like the one he found in the Navy.

Imagine yourself, or a young person you know, turning 18 without family or a close support structure in place. That's exactly what many youth in foster care face in most states when they turn 18. Rather than celebrate their legal adulthood, they yearn for the guidance and wisdom that family typically provides. Ironically, the normalcy many teenagers in intact families seek to leave behind when they turn 18 is precisely what their peers in foster care yearn for -- and require -- in order to succeed in adulthood.

Indeed, we all suffer when young people age out of foster care and enter the world alone. Today, 30 years after Fisher was dropped off at a shelter, young people aging out of foster care continue to enter the homeless population at unacceptable rates. Furthermore, increased public assistance, incarceration and lost wages linked to aging out of care cost the U.S. billions annually.

It doesn't have to be this way. Young people in foster care are resilient and strong. They have the same aspirations for college and success in life as any young person. Quite simply, they deserve a better path -- and we can take action immediately to help them build one.

The abrupt and unnecessary end of foster care services is a problem we can fix; in fact, a number of states have already begun to address this issue. But simply extending foster care three more years is not the answer. It's important to do it right. "Doing it right" means that young people in care are not on their own when they turn 18, that they have a say in decisions about their lives and that judges, child welfare agencies, and others responsible for their well-being recognize them as emerging adults, with unique and evolving needs. It means understanding each young person's unique needs in the same way we tailor love and support to match differences among our own children.

Increasingly, policy makers and others are focused on the adoption and permanency needs of older youth in foster care. To build on this momentum, this month the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative is launching a social media campaign to create a national dialogue in support of extending foster care services beyond the age of 18 and doing it right. Our success depends upon everyone's participation -- including young people, educators, advocates and others who work with youth in foster care.

Please join us. Add your voice to the movement by joining our Twitter conversation using the hashtag #betterpath. Tell those you know how important it is to push policymakers, child welfare agencies, and others to enact policies and practices that will ensure a better path for these young people. Here are five reasons we can't wait to act:

  1. We all pay the price when young people age out of foster care without support. America's foster care system denies older kids leaving foster care the support they need for a strong start at adulthood, including a permanent family and a safety net they can turn to if they need it. In turn, this leaves a heavy burden on taxpayers and communities -- to the tune of $7.8 billion per year.
  2. Simply extending foster care services beyond age 18 is not enough. By extending foster care and doing it right, we'll make sure that more young people have opportunities to succeed in school, work and adult life.
  3. Young people in foster care shouldn't be written off as a lost cause. Although young people in foster care are often significantly impacted by trauma, the latest adolescent brain research shows that the teen years are a time of increased opportunity to rewire the brain and develop resilience.
  4. Teens in foster care can't thrive in a system designed primarily for young children. Too often, the foster care system falls short of meeting adolescent's needs as developing adults because it was designed for young children, for whom safety and security are understandably most critical.
  5. Unlike so many intractable social problems, this is one we can solve. By encouraging states to extend foster care beyond age 18 -- and to ensure foster care is done right at all stages -- we will all see the benefits, through more young people connected to loving families and strong support networks; more young people completing high school, vocational training and college, more young people becoming employed, fewer unplanned teen pregnancies and lower overall healthcare costs.

The fact is that more than 26,000 young people age out of foster care each year. These are young people who want to contribute to society, and to be adequately equipped to do so. They have the potential and the resilience, but they can't do it alone. As Antwone Fisher's character famously relays in the movie: "I'm still standing. I'm still strong. And I always will be." Let's not let them down. Let's all do our part to ensure young adults in foster care a better path.