Children may be in an OHC placement until they turn 18 or 19 if they are still attending high school. “Aging out” of OHC is defined as being at the end of a placement with no subsequent placement decisions made by an agency or the court. In these instances, a child is exiting a placement and the child welfare agency is no longer responsible for the child’s physical custody. The most current federal data indicate that more than 23,000 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 “aged out” of the foster care system in 2012 (The AFCARS Report, November 2013). These youth had few resources and little support. Their data suggest factors contributing to this unsuccessful transition: limited education, unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and inadequate health care.
In addition to being asked to find an alternative living situation at the age of 18, youth previously in foster care aging out are “abruptly” forced to find all new service providers--schools, jobs, mental health providers, doctors, and transportation closer to their new home, which may or may not be permanent. A significant number of youth, upon exiting the foster care system, experience various hardships and struggles, including homelessness (Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor and Nesmith, 2001), unemployment (Cook, 1994), incarceration (Barth, 1990), and difficulties with health and mental health concerns and limited health care coverage (Barth, 1990).
A consistent finding is that youth in foster care are more likely to drop out of school than those who have not been in care (Courtney et al., 2001). Again, most of the explanation for these differences is that youth in OHC moved from placement to placement and school to school, making it impossible to develop continuous long-term relationships with caregivers and teachers. The supportive role fulfilled by the family, the peer group, the school, and the community predicts positive outcomes for children (Rosenfeld, Richman, & Bowen, 2000). However, eighty percent of children change schools when they change out-of-home placements (Berrick, Courtney, & Barth, 1993), which strains their ability to perform at the same level as other students.
In 1999, the Division of Children and Family Services in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work established the Independent Living Advisory Committee. The role of the committee was to determine the needs of these youth and to provide recommendations as to how the current child welfare system can achieve measurable improvements. The mission of the Independent Living Advisory Committee, reflecting its belief that these youth are “our children,” is to assure that all youth exiting the out-of-home care system in Wisconsin will make the transition to adulthood as self-sufficient, productive, and healthy individuals.
In terms of the youth who are specifically served with federal independent living funds, the Committee Report emphasized consideration of the following groups in the priority order listed:
1. Youth who exited care on their 18th birthday and who were in out-of-home care for at least two years prior to their exit.
2. Youth who exited care between their 17th and 18th birthdays and who were in care for at least two years prior to their exit.
3. Youth who exited care after the age of 17 and who were in care for at least one year.
4. All other youth who exit the out-of-home care system.
The goal is for all youth aged 16 or older exiting out-of-home care to leave care with a minimum of the following:
• Driver’s license or preparation for obtaining a driver’s license or other access to transportation to school, employment, and other critical activities;
• High school diploma or GED or enrollment in an educational program designed to result in a high school diploma or GED;
• Written employment history;
• Copies of their birth certificate, social security card, and medical records;
• Access to funds adequate to support himself/herself for a period of three months following exit from care;
• Access to and knowledge of local resources, including but not limited to food pantries, human service agencies, health clinics and mental health facilities; and
• A safe and stable living environment
WI Independent Living Advisory Report, 1999
The committee’s conclusion was that targeting these particular areas would create better outcomes for youth in out-of-home care (i.e. secure housing, employment, education, and income). Unfortunately, these youth face several barriers to becoming self-sufficient. In order to narrow the disadvantages we need to understand how youth experience OHC and how they make meaning of those experiences.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
Children in need of protection services face the dilemma of loyalty to their biological family and acceptance of rescuing authorities. Children placed in OHC face additional challenges starting with the separation from their biological family, moving from one OHC placement to another, and ultimately aging out with little resources and support.
My goal is that the results of the study will help service providers assist and support youth in out-of-home care. Specifically, I hope this information can assist in creating better outcomes for youth aging out of OHC (i.e. more adequate shelter, educational attainment, employment/employment stability, healthy relationships, and financial independence). Through their stories we see their struggles and survival. This research offers insight for child-placing agencies, policy makers, mental health professionals, educators, youth care workers, and all youth.
There are several areas of literature that were relevant to this study. For example, the history of child maltreatment (where did the earliest cases come from, who reported the maltreatment or abuse, and what was done to the abusing parent or caregiver)? Second, what other policies grew from this issue and why did those policies change over time. Finally, how does government involvement affect outcomes of youth in out-of-home care? What policies needed to change in order for the outcomes to be better for foster youth as they prepared for their transition to independence?