By LAUREN FREDERICK and DAWN RAINS
After 14 years of foster care and 28 different placements — from Crisis Residential Centers and foster homes to group homes — Maven Gardner celebrated their 18th birthday without a place to live. It’s a story that is far from unique in the foster care system. Nearly a third of homeless youth under the age of 25 have experienced foster care, according to the latest King County "Count Us In” report.
At 16, Maven could see it coming. They even told their caseworkers at the group home that they feared exiting foster care into homelessness. No one took them seriously. Maven believes they could have avoided living on the streets, finished high school and gone to college if they had been offered the option to enroll in Extended Foster Care.
Extended Foster Care provides an opportunity for young people to voluntarily agree to continue receiving foster care services through age 21 while finishing school or participating in an employment program. Previously youth were required to enroll by age 19. Unfortunately, no one told Maven, and the deadline came and went.
Earlier this year, state legislators approved changes to Extended Foster Care that will allow youth like Maven to enter and exit the program as many times as needed until age 21. These updates take effect in July and will offer many youth extra support as they transition into adulthood.
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These simple and needed changes took a multiyear effort from advocates and legislators. Maven, now 22, is one of those many advocates, as a network representative at The Mockingbird Society. Other key supporters include Treehouse, Columbia Legal Service, A Way Home Washington and Partners for Our Children.
The impact of being able to enter, leave and re-enter the program cannot be overstated. For some, Extended Foster Care may not be a good fit right away.
The impact of being able to enter, leave and re-enter the program cannot be overstated.
For 18-year-olds who have experienced so much uncertainty and lack of control in their lives, the idea of signing themselves back into foster care as an adult can be a hard sell. Young adults might want to try out life on their own without the requirement to meet regularly with a social worker. If it doesn’t work out, now they will have the safety net of being able to enter or re-enter Extended Foster Care.
Like most people in their age group, youth in foster care crave independence. Unlike their peers, they are far less likely to have family or other support to fall back on.
If they make a mistake, it can mean the difference between having a place to live or becoming homeless. The odds are stacked against them.
If they make a mistake, it can mean the difference between having a place to live or becoming homeless.
By investing in policy changes to broaden eligibility for Extended Foster Care, we significantly improve those odds. Taxpayers benefit too. In fact, for every dollar the state puts into the Extended Foster Care program, taxpayers get back $1.35. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that youth enrolled in Extended Foster Care are far more likely to attend college for a longer period of time. They’re also more financially stable and less likely to be arrested.
We have seen many motivated youth who are on track to graduate sabotage themselves because they don’t know where they’re going to live after they turn 18.
No one should be left without any support. Thankfully, many youth will get the support and second chances they need and deserve.
Lauren Frederick is the public policy and advocacy manager at The Mockingbird Society, an advocacy organization that elevates the voices of young people who have experienced foster care and homelessness. Dawn Rains is Chief Policy Officer at Treehouse, which gives youth in foster care a childhood and a future. Together, the two organizations bring attention to key issues for our most vulnerable youth.
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