Pathways: the numbers and the recommendations

On October 11, 2012, BNY Mellon convened community and thought leaders, practitioners, funders, and other stakeholders in the child welfare space for the Powering Potential Thought Leadership Summit. The main topic of concern was how to improve the life outcomes of youth aging out of foster care. They lay out the problem using data from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative:

  • More than one in five will become homeless, often on their 18th birthday.
  • Only 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19 (compared to 87 percent of all 19 year olds).
  • 71 percent of young women are pregnant before age 21, facing higher rates of unemployment, criminal conviction, public assistance and involvement in the child welfare system.
  • At the age of 24, only half are employed.
  • Fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25 (compared to 28 percent of all 25 year olds).
  • One in four will be involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving foster care.

According to Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, young people in foster care face variety of physical and emotional challenges that make their transition to adulthood particularly difficult. These include:

  • exposure to trauma
  • juvenile justice involvement
  • lack of adult supports
  • unstable living arrangements
  • pregnancy and early parenting for both young men and women
  • mental health and substance abuse issues.

If they enter the system between the ages of 16 and 17, the likelihood of aging out of foster care (rather than returning to their family of origin or being adopted, etc.) rise to 20-27% from under 15%, if they enter care between 5 and 15 years old.

Summit attendees agreed on the need for early interventions that target youth who are likely to be aging out of care. Other recommendations that arose (and I add my commentary parenthetically):

Communicate clearly to youth that we expect them to be successful. (To paraphrase the great Michael Carrera, if you haven’t found the gift in each young person you work with, keep looking!)

Connect them to resources, especially to potential employers. (They also recommend, as seems to be the trend in vocational training, that educators be brought to the table, in order to align with employers’ needs. I am personally very ambivalent on this latter point.)

Build on what you’ve done. “Don’t assume that what you’ve done has not created the progress you’ve observed.” (This piece of advice confuses me because of all the emphasis lately on investing in programs with measurable outcomes. If you’re observing progress, you better have a good idea that what you’ve built has contributed to that progress. If you’re modest enough to admit that you don’t have the silver bullet in your possession, and wise enough to know that it truly takes a village—especially with youth in foster care—you should be clear about exactly what your role as a villager is. What is your contribution? What would be missing if you didn’t do your part of the work?

Engage with the youth themselves. Be a mentor (even if an informal capacity, as a role model and caring, stable presence).

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