Preparing Youth in Foster Care for Independence

Young people who leave foster care when they become legal adults face a challenging future. Without appropriate resources, skills and mentoring to guide them to success, they often feel ill-prepared for adulthood.

To help organizations support young people who age out of the foster care system, The Duke Endowment awarded more than $3 million in grants between 2005 and 2015.


Since 1999, more than 230,000 youth have “aged out” of foster care in the United States, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national foundation based in Baltimore. On their own and without a permanent family, they face tough odds.

A national report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Time for Reform: Aging Out and On their Own,” sheds light on their vulnerability.

“I turned 18 a month before I graduated from high school,” says one young woman interviewed for the report. “The day after graduation, I was kicked out of my foster home, where I had been living for two years. I was 18, a high school graduate on my way to college in the fall, and I was homeless.”

Statistics in the report are bleak:

  • One in four aged out youth will be incarcerated within the first two years after leaving the system.
  • More than one-fifth will become homeless at some time after age 18.
  • About 58 percent had a high school degree at age 19, compared with 87 percent of a national comparison group of non-foster youth.
  • Of youth who aged out of foster care and are over the age of 25, less than 3 percent earned their college degrees, compared with 28 percent of the general population.

The Pew report mentions two other studies – the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth and the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study – that looked at aged-out youth who had been placed in foster care as a result of abuse and neglect. Both the Midwest evaluation and the Northwest study found that many of these young people struggle to complete their education, have significant physical and mental health issues but few resources to obtain health care, are unemployed or underemployed and face poverty and experience homelessness.

Other national research has found that youth who age out are at increased risk of early parenthood, which often creates a ripple of social and economic disadvantage.


To help young people prepare for independence, the Endowment has worked with accredited organizations and other select nonprofit groups to offer programs focused on transitional living, career services and vocational training.

A 2007 grant, for example, helped launch the Bakker Career Center at Carolina Youth Development Center in North Charleston. The center provides education, life skills, leadership and career technology programs. Efforts are underway to expand services into middle schools and high schools that serve a high percentage of at-risk students. 

Support from The Duke Endowment helped Carolina Youth Development win recent funding from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York to refine and evaluate the Bakker Center’s work. As a result, the program is now offered in a low-income high school in North Charleston.

In 2013 and 2015, the Endowment supported the Leadership for Life program at Carolina Youth Development Center. Leadership for Life is an integrated residential and after-school program that develops academic, job readiness, and life skills necessary to become self-sufficient and independent adults.

Grants in 2011, 2014 and 2015 funded Youth in Transition, an initiative in Forsyth County, N.C., designed by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative to improve connections to community resources and services. To date, 79 youth have benefited from the program.

Youth in Transition is charged with improving outcomes in seven areas: permanence, housing, employment, education, social capital, financial capability, and physical and mental health. The program is anchored at the local Goodwill Industries, which is providing job training services. About 60 young adults participate.

Grants in 2011 and 2015 helped establish a post-secondary residential vocational school and transitional living program at Eliada Homes in Asheville, N.C. The Eliada School of Trade Arts (ESTA) currently offers Culinary Technology, but future students will be able to earn certificates in HVAC, masonry and construction, landscaping, and pre-K education.

After opening in the summer of 2012, the program had six students enrolled in the fall of 2013, including the first two women. Plans call for increasing the student body to 67.

Similarly, a 2015 grant to Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina in Lake Waccamaw, N.C., helped establish a culinary arts program for youth ages 18-21 who are transitioning from foster care. Students will reside on campus and are expected to matriculate through the culinary program within 8-12 months.

The Endowment has also funded efforts at several high quality organizations to convert unused residential cottages into transitional, independent housing with the goal of helping young people develop life skills, find employment, finish their education and avoid risky behavior. The Endowment considers transitional housing grants on a limited, case-by-case basis.

In related work, The Duke Endowment has funded a pilot program in North Carolina that seeks to shift the way the child welfare system serves children and families. The pilot grew from conversations between the Endowment and Catawba County Social Services.

The idea was to test the theory that children who leave foster care still need intervention. If social service departments couple permanent placement with ongoing advocacy and support, perhaps they could improve outcomes for children and families. The Catawba County Child Wellbeing Project began serving families in August 2010.

The program is being extended to four adjacent counties and is being further evaluated using a randomized control design.

Participating Sites

North Carolina

South Carolina


Area of Work

  • Out-of-home care for youth

Program Area

  • Child & Family Well-Being

Grantmaking Status

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities