Improving Outcomes for Foster Youth in Rhode Island
The long-term outcomes for young people in the foster care system, particularly those who “age out” of the system, are alarming. In the years after leaving foster care, they are less likely to graduate high school,1,2 complete college,1,3 or be employed.4 They are also more likely to be incarcerated5,6 or homeless7 and to become young mothers.5 The statistics suggest that foster youth are one of the most vulnerable populations.
Fig. 1 Foster Youth Face a Number of Challenges After They Leave Foster Care
Source: Courtney, et al., 2009.5 Bonczar & Beck, 1997.6
Source: Okpych and Courtney, 2014.4 Stewart, et al., 2014.8
These challenges not only affect young people leaving foster care, but also the state, which continues to pay high costs for these youth even after they leave the foster system. It costs the state of Rhode Island nearly $50,000 per year to incarcerate a single inmate,10 $25,000 in healthcare costs for an unintended pregnancy,11 and tens of thousands annually in services and support for each chronically homeless person.12 The state also loses out on the potential tax revenue and economic growth that might result if these young adults instead found gainful employment and social stability after leaving foster care.
In this report, we review the available research on the long-term outcomes for foster youth and examine four options for improving their prospects: increasing the age at which youth “age out”(a) of the foster system, decreasing the use of group homes, promoting educational stability and success, and increasing job training and employment opportunities. We review the academic literature on each of these topics and explore how states have attempted to improve outcomes by making policy changes in these areas.
The Landscape of Foster Care in Rhode Island
At the end of 2014, there were 2,078 children under age 21 who had been removed from their families and were in the care of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).2 The majority (61%) of these children were in foster care home placements, though many were in group homes or other residential facilities. In 2014, 1,091 young people exited DCYF care, primarily to be reunited with family or adopted.2 The majority (71%) of the 14% who exited due to aging out of the system had been in DCYF care since they were 12 or younger.
(a) “Age out” is when youth exit the foster care system because they exceed the maximum age limit to receive services. This means they have not been adopted or reunited with their family by the time they reach the end of their foster care eligibility, which often occurs at age 18.
Fig. 2 Placements of Children in Rhode Island’s Foster Care System, 2014
Source: Rhode Island Kids Count, 2015.2
Fig. 3 Reasons Children Leave Rhode Island’s Foster Care System, 2014
Source: Rhode Island Kids Count, 2015.2
Racial minorities tend to have significantly worse outcomes than white children in foster care, including more placement changes, longer stays in the system, lower adoption and reunification rates, less contact with caseworkers, and less access to mental health facilities and substance abuse services.2 In Rhode Island, white children are far more likely to be adopted than minorities, particularly African Americans.13
Fig. 4 Racial Disparities in Adoption in Rhode Island, 2012
Source: North American Council on Adoptable Children, 2014.13
When Should Youth "Age Out" of the Foster System?
The age at which youth “age out” of the foster care system in Rhode Island was lowered from 21 to 18 in 2007 due to budget cuts.(b) This contradicts current best practices and research that demonstrates that youth who “age out” of the foster care system at age 21 (or later) are better prepared for adulthood. Studies conducted in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Illinois found that young people who remain in foster care past the age of 18 have increased employment rates, wages, and job stability.14 Research in Illinois, where youth can remain in foster care until age 21, found that each extra year youth stay in care after age 18 increases the likelihood of employment by 18% to 25% and increases wages by 2.7%.14
Youth who remain in foster care until they are older may have better employment outcomes because they can stay in the educational system longer and obtain education, training, and work experience that prepare them to support themselves.14 Perhaps most importantly, these youth have reliable and safe housing as they are starting their careers or higher education, and can save money during this transitional time toward independent living after they leave the system.
Finding stable housing is a challenge for many youth when they “age out” of foster care, because they do not have family to rely on in times of need. Housing instability and homelessness can prevent them from obtaining and holding onto permanent jobs and taking part in educational programs.7 For this reason, many states are instituting programs to help foster youth with housing during the “transition” years of young adulthood.15
(b) Due to a budget deficit in 2007, the state cut $8.5 million from the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Family’s funding, which led the agency to lower the year that youth age out of the system from 21 to 18.2
Fig. 5 Housing Instability Among Former Foster Youth
Source: Dion, et al., 2014.
Textbox 1: Transitional Housing for Older Foster Youth
Should Foster Youth be Placed in Group Homes?
Group homes are state-licensed facilities that provide full-time nonmedical care and supervision to foster children. They may be either large institutional settings or smaller, more home-like environments. Group homes tend to offer the most restrictive type of placement for foster youth and the least opportunities for adult-child bonding and normalized activities. Yet an estimated 40% of those placed in group homes have no behavioral needs that require such a placement.17
Studies consistently find that foster youth in group homes have the worst educational, employment, and social outcomes of all youth in state care. They are more likely to score below average in math and English, less likely to graduate high school, and more likely to be arrested.17 In one study, youth exiting from group care in Illinois were 63% less likely to be employed, and those who were employed earned lower wages than other youth exiting the foster care system.18 In addition to creating worse outcomes, group homes are more expensive, costing seven to ten times as much as placement with a foster family.17
Fig.6 The Use of Group Homes for Foster Youth
Source: Rhode Island Kids Count, 2015.2
Given the negative effects of group home placement, experts now suggest that group homes should be used infrequently based on mental health needs and that children under the age of thirteen should never be placed in group care.17 Because of this growing consensus, many states have begun to limit their use of group homes, though Rhode Island has continued to utilize them at a rate far above the national average. One model for decreasing the use of group homes is California’s 2015 legislation overhauling its system to make group home care a short-term event, not a permanent solution.19 Group homes in California are now to be used only on an as-needed basis for youth with the most intense mental health needs.20 To avoid the need for group home placement, the legislation increased recruitment and training of families to house foster youth and provided greater funding and resources for kinship caregivers.(c)
(c) Kinship care is when a foster child lives under the care of a relative. It has been the focus of increased funding because children in this type of care have fewer placements and more consistent contact with their family.19
Textbox 2: Limiting the Use of Group Homes
How Can We Increase Educational Success Among Foster Youth?
Youth in foster care face many barriers to academic success, including being shuffled between schools. When children enter foster care, 65% of them are forced to transfer to a new school in the middle of the year.9 One-third of youth report changing schools ten or more times during their stay in foster care.9 Research shows that changing schools can cause significant educational setbacks.(d) It can also be emotionally challenging for youth who must deal with the stigma of being in foster care on top of the usual stress of being new to a school and struggling to make friends, adapt to new teachers and curriculum, and find sources of support.24
(d) Students who change schools score significantly lower on standardized tests and are more likely to repeat a grade. Every time a student changes schools, it is estimated they need four to six months to catch up in their classes.23
Fig. 7 Education and the Foster Care System
Source: National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2014.1 Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, 2015.2 U.S. Department of Education, 2012.3 Munson and Freundlich, 2008.9
Problems with communication among families, schools, and the foster system can exacerbate these challenges by dragging out the transfer process. Current policy in Rhode Island states that when a young person in foster care transfers to a new school, their educational records must be forwarded within ten days, a process that is coordinated by a designated educational liaison in each school district. However, according to foster system social workers interviewed for this research, this process often drags out due to privacy concerns and the inaccurate belief by some school officials that a parent signature is necessary to transfer records even for children in state care.25 This means that foster youth in Rhode Island often experience extended periods of absence between placements and, when they do start classes, their teachers and administrators may not have access to complete information about their educational needs.(e)
The school transfer process for foster youth could be improved by following and expanding existing guidelines.28 The federal Uninterrupted Scholars Act of 2013 already provides that parental written consent is not necessary in order for schools to release the educational records of foster youth to child welfare agencies. The right to remain in one’s current school or immediately transfer to a new school (and begin attending classes prior to the transfer of necessary documentation) is guaranteed to homeless students through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a right that could be extended to include foster youth. This act also requires that students receive transportation to and from school if needed to remain in their original school while experiencing periods of homelessness – a service that could greatly benefit foster youth.29
(e) Students with high absence rates have significantly lower standardized test scores in both reading and math.26 After controlling for other factors, students who missed even one to two weeks of school per semester had much lower high school graduation rates than their peers who missed less than one week of school.27
Textbox 3: Preventing Academic Disruption for Foster Children
One practical detail involved in allowing foster youth to remain in their original school through placement changes is transportation.(f) Group homes and foster parents are often unable to drive a student to and from a different school district each day. Rhode Island already has a Statewide Student Transportation System that provides in- and out-of-district transportation for students with disabilities and those who attend parochial, charter, private, and technical schools.30 This system could be amended to include students in foster care in order to allow them to have school stability during periods of disruption in their home lives.
(f) Louisiana addressed the issue of transportation with legislation requiring that the student's school district transport the student to the location within their district that is closest to the student’s new home placement, and The Department of Child and Family Services provide the student’s transportation between that point and their new home placement.
How Can We Better Prepare Foster Youth for Jobs?
Foster youth are often unable to participate in the after-school activities and part-time and summer jobs that typically prepare teens for future work opportunities and help them do well in school. Providing foster youth with the “normalcy”(g) of participating in activities other children their age enjoy can help them build ties to adult role models and regain the social capital lost in their separation from familial and community bonds.33 Allowing youth to participate in employment activities prior to leaving the system helps them build healthy professional relationships, make their own decisions, and develop the skills to find and maintain a job.3
(g) Normalcy refers to “age and developmentally appropriate activities and experiences that allow children and youth to grow.”32
Federal law requires that states allow foster youth to participate in age-appropriate developmental activities such as part-time jobs and extracurricular programs.(h) In Rhode Island, foster youth can only take part in these day-to-day activities with written permission from their caseworkers, which creates a considerable hurdle for youth who wish to participate in educational programs and summer or after-school employment. However, a recent federal law mandates that states stop requiring caseworker signatures for extracurricular and social activities and instead allow caregivers to make these decisions following the “Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard.”
(h) In 2014, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which mandates that states provide foster youth with age-appropriate developmental activities and opportunities, such as part-time jobs, after-school sports, and the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license. The law also requires that youth age 14 and over be included in the development of their plan for transitioning to adulthood, and that they be allowed to select an adult to participate in this process as an advocate. Although passed by Congress, this law has not been fully implemented by the states.32
In addition to encouraging foster youth to participate in normal job and after-school activities, some states have created programs with the explicit goal of improving employment outcomes for foster youth. One example is the Community Assistance Program in Chicago, which is designed to teach foster youth soft skills through classroom-based training followed by a subsidized two-month on-the-job experience.(i) At the end of the program, the employer has the option to hire the young person.18 In Minnesota, all young people 16 or over are assessed for hard, soft, and life skills upon entering the foster care system. The results of this assessment are used to aid in the creation and implementation of a life and career plan for each young person. This plan may include services such as work-readiness training, resume workshops, financial support, interview preparation, and networking activities.34
(i) As transportation is often an obstacle to foster youth employment, participating youth are provided with transportation assistance to and from any employment training and job placement, along with referrals to other job-related services they may need such as childcare or clothing providers.
Preparing Foster Youth for Long-Term Success
After leaving the foster care system, young people face enormous barriers in successfully transitioning into adulthood and employment. A large body of research has elucidated the problems these youth face with housing, employment, education, and incarceration. To address these challenges, Rhode Island might consider some of the policies already in place in other states to support foster youth, including:
- Extending the age at which youth “age out” of the system from 18 to 21 or 23. This will grant foster youth stable housing and more time for education, training, and work experience to prepare them to live on their own.
- Limiting group home usage and making these placements a short-term solution. Research shows that foster youth have better outcomes when placed in home-based family care.
- Minimizing the academic disruption that occurs when foster youth have to transfer schools. By allowing students to stay in their original school even when moving home locations and encouraging the immediate transfer of records when school transfers are unavoidable, states can help ensure foster youth do not fall behind in their education.
- Increasing employment opportunities, training, and transition services for teens and young adults in foster care to make sure that they are prepared to live on their own and support themselves financially by the time they leave state care.
Foster youth are perhaps the most vulnerable youth demographic in Rhode Island. When young people “age out” of the foster care system, they are very likely to face significant challenges to completing their education, gaining meaningful employment, and obtaining secure housing. Without support, these young people can end up homeless or in prison, costing the state significant tax dollars and wasting valuable human capital. Without significant changes in policy and investment by the state to improve life outcomes for former foster youth, this population will continue to face personal hardships at a high cost to taxpayers.
1. National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. 2014. “Fostering Success in Education: National Factsheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care.” Washington, D.C.: Legal Center for Foster Care and Education.
2. Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. 2015. 2015 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. Providence, RI.
3. U.S. Department of Education. 2012. “New State-by-State College Attainment Numbers Show Progress Toward 2020 Goal [press release].” July 12.
4. Okpych, Nathanael J. and Mark E. Courtney. 2014. “Does education pay for youth formerly in foster care? Comparison of employment outcomes with a national sample.” Children and Youth Services Review, 43: 18–28.
5. Courtney, Mark E., Amy Dworsky, JoAnn S. Lee, and Melissa Raap. 2009. Midwest evaluation of the adult functioning of former foster youth: Outcomes at age 23 and 24. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
6. Bonczar, Thomas P. and Allen J. Beck. 1997. Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
7. Dion, Robin, Amy Dworsky, Jackie Kauff, and Rebecca Kleinman. 2014. Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research.
8. Stewart, C. Joy, Hye-Chung Kum, Richard P. Barth, and Dean F. Duncan. 2014. “Former foster youth: Employment outcomes up to age 30.” Children and Youth Services Review, 36: 220–229.
9. Munson, Sara and Madelyn Freundlich. 2008. Educating Children in Foster Care: State Legislation 2004-2007. Washington, D.C.: National Conference of State Legislatures.
10. Henrichson, Christian and Ruth Delaney. 2012. “The Price of Prisons - Rhode Island: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.” New York: Vera Institute of Justice.
11. Sonfield, Adam and Kathryn Kost. 2015. “Public Costs from Unintended Pregnancies and the Role of Public Insurance Programs in Paying for Pregnancy-Related Care: National and State Estimates for 2010.” New York: Guttmacher Institute.
12. Santich, Kate. 2014. “Cost of Homelessness in Central Florida? $31K per Person.” Orlando Sentinel, May 21. Emmons, Mark. 2015. “Homeless in Santa Clara County: Report Puts Cost at $520 Million a Year.” The Mercury News, May 26.
13. North American Council on Adoptable Children. 2014. “Rhode Island Adoption Facts.” St. Paul, MN.
14. Hook, Jennifer and Mark Courtney. 2011. “Employment Outcomes of Former Foster Youth as Young Adults: The Importance of Human, Personal, and Social Capital.” Children and Youth Services Review, 33(10): 1855–65.
15. For a fuller review of state policies for helping foster youth during “transition years,” see: NGA Center for Best Practices. 2007. State Policies to Help Youth Transition Out of Foster Care. Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association.
16. California Department of Social Services. 2015. California’s Child Welfare Continuum of Care Reform. Sacramento, CA.
17. Kate Shatzkin. 2015. Every Kid Needs a Family. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
18. Dworsky, Amy and Judy Havlicek. 2010. “An Employment Training and Job Placement Program for Foster Youth making the transition to adulthood in Cook County, Illinois.” Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
19. Swartz, Angie, Brian Blalock, Susie Smith and Alexandra Thomas. 2013. “Continuum of Care Reform: Focus on Supporting Youth in Family Settings.” Los Angeles, CA: Alliance for Children’s Rights.
20. Sapien, Joaquin. 2015. "Can California Successfully Re-Build Its Foster Care System?" Pacific Standard, November 12.
21. Office of Assemblymember Mark Stone. 2015. “AB 403 (Stone): Foster Youth: Continuum of Care Reform.” Sacramento, CA.
22. Jim Roberts. 2015. “California’s Continuum of Care Plan: An Opportunity for True Reform.” The Chronicle of Social Change, March 13.
23. Nix-Hodes, Patricia and Laurene M. Heybach. 2014. "Removing Barriers: The Struggle to Ensure Educational Rights for Students Experiencing Homelessness." Critical Questions in Education, 5(3): 143-171.
24. Advocates for Children of New York. 2009. “The Importance of School Stability for Youth in Foster Care.” New York, NY.
25. Personal interview with staff from the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families. March 4, 2016.
26. Gottfried, M. 2011. “The Detrimental Effects of Missing School: Evidence from Urban Siblings.” American Journal of Education, 117(2): 147-182.
27. Allensworth, Elaine M. and John Q. Easton. 2007. What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public High Schools: A Close Look at Course Grades, Failures, and Attendance in the Freshman Year. Chicago, IL: Consortium of Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
28. Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. No date. “Data & Information Sharing.” Retrieved June 6, 2016.
29. Rhode Island Department of Education. No date. "Students Experiencing Homelessness." Retrieved June 6, 2016.
30. Rhode Island Department of Education. No date. “Student Transportation.” Retrieved June 6, 2016.
31. California Department of Social Services. 2009. Resource Directory: A Guide for Current and Emancipated Foster Youth. Sacramento, CA.
32. Pokempner, Jennifer, Kacey Mordecai, Lourdes Rosado and Divya Subrahmanyam. 2015. Promoting Normalcy for Children and Youth in Foster Care. Philadelphia, PA: Juvenile Law Center.
33. Hook, Jennifer and Mark Courtney. 2010. Employment of Former Foster Youth as Young Adults: Evidence from the Midwest Study. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
34. Minnesota Department of Human Services, Child Safety and Permanency Division. 2012. Helping Youth Transition from Out-of-Home Care to Adulthood Best Practice Guide. St Paul, MN.
Type of Research