For most of us, turning 18 was more of a symbolic change than anything.
Our parents didn’t say goodbye to us. We didn’t immediately strike out on our own, looking for a place to stay and worrying about where our next meal would come from.
But for the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care across America, turning 18 can mean finding themselves untethered from the child welfare systems that have held primary responsibility for providing for them in the absence of their biological parents.
While well-intentioned, child welfare systems too often send young people out on their own without the social connections and supports they need. Studies show those young people are more likely to end up in jail, suffer untreated mental health needs and fall into unemployment, among other poor outcomes. Sierra Burns’ story, as she tells it in the accompanying video, shows how easily such misfortunes can entrap them.
South Carolina is trying to change that. About 300 young people age out of its foster care system each year. With the recent passage of a new law, the state has tapped into federal funding that will allow it to extend foster care services on a voluntary basis until the age of 21.
Before the new law, South Carolina was one of just two states, along with Oklahoma, that did not include a provision in state law for this kind of program. State legislation addressing the gap was filed for the first time under the leadership of S.C. DSS State Director Michael Leach, who made it one of his top priorities. By adding a statute change into state law, South Carolina will be able to access federal Title IV‑E dollars to help support young adults with housing, transportation, education and case management.
Before the new law’s passage last spring, the state had just 160 or so young adults utilizing extended foster care services. New federal dollars will help the state offer support to more youth until they reach 21. Research suggests it could have a significant and positive impact. A 2018 California study found that extended foster care services decreased the odds of youth becoming homeless or couch-surfing by 28 percent, increased their sustained employment levels and decreased their odds of arrest by about 40 percent.
At The Duke Endowment, we work with child welfare agencies across the Carolinas, searching for ways to make systems work better for vulnerable children and families. This is certainly one of those ways. Congratulations to South Carolina, and to all the young adults who will benefit.
Phil Redmond directs the Endowment’s Child and Family Well-Being program area.