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Extended Foster Care: A New Tool to Help Homeless Youth

March 26, 2012

By Amy Lemley

It’s been three months since California began implementation of extended foster care and much work is underway. Social workers, probation officer, attorneys and judges around the state are helping young people access extended foster care. Is it going perfectly? Certainly not. But county by county, California is changing its child welfare system to serve non-minors in foster care.

Unfortunately, we have left out a growing, yet largely invisible population of the vulnerable: homeless youth.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the annual prevalence of homelessness among youth 12 to 17 years old is 7.6 percent, with 1.7 million homeless youth nationwide. In California, an estimated 200,000 youth age 12 to 17 will experience an episode of homelessness each year.

Currently, our child welfare system doesn’t do enough for these young people, despite the fact that they have a lot in common with children and youth in foster care, including high rates of abuse and neglect. According to an excellent study recently completed by the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, a full 69% of homeless youth living in a shelter reported some form of maltreatment, including physical abuse (51%) and sexual abuse (23%). These findings are consistent with studies of homeless youth across the country.

So if homeless minors are clearly experiencing maltreatment, why aren’t they being served by the child welfare system more frequently? This is a complex question and there is no single answer. In many jurisdictions, there is a high level of coordination between the two systems, in others there is none.

Two possible explanations for this come to mind. The most obvious one is that homeless youth don’t want to enter foster care either because they don’t think that it will help them and they don’t want to get their family in trouble. Another possible explanation is that prior to passage of AB 12, age 18 marked the end of foster care eligibility, limiting the period of time a homeless youth would benefit from child welfare services. For some, this time limitation may have led to an assumption that it just wasn’t worth it to go through the often lengthy and contentious process of bringing an older youth into care.

The extension of foster care via AB 12 , however, promises to turn both of these explanations on their head, for a variety of reasons. First, extended foster care includes two new placements, which offer a higher level of independence and self-sufficiency:  THP-Plus Foster Care and the Supervised Independent Living Setting. Either of these are likely to be more attractive to some youth than the kind of foster care placement that, based on the old system, might have jumped to mind. New social work and court practices are also changing the face of foster care, making it more responsive to the needs of youth. But most importantly, extended foster care is optional. If a young adult tries it and does not like it, he or she can simply exit, no questions asked.

AB12 also obviates the second assumption – that a 17 and a half year old would only get a few months of service from foster care, perhaps not enough to justify the administrative and emotional expense of entering foster care. With extended foster care, any youth who is in foster care at 18 can get services and supports for at least two full years – likely three, once the legislature finishes working through all of the still pending clean up legislation.

Bridging the divide between the homeless youth community and child welfare community to better serve these vulnerable youth will require a significant shift in the mindset of both parties. Many who work with homeless youth regard foster care as part of the problem, not part of the solution. For these people, we will need to demonstrate how extended foster care offers young adults something different and better than the foster care that they know.

For those in child welfare, we will have to make the case that abused and neglected homeless minors are squarely within our purview. Child welfare will need to develop new, creative approaches to identifying homeless youth and serving them in a manner that will encourage their participation in extended foster care. Current efforts are not adequate: as of April 2011, 11 percent of 18 year-olds in foster care are on runaway status. How are we reaching out to these young people, and other homeless youth?

Fortunately, California is a laboratory where many of these questions are being tested. In Alameda County, Bay Area Legal Aid, the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance, and Dreamcatcher Youth Shelter have joined forces to understand how extended foster care can be a bridge between the homeless youth and the child welfare system. Since July 2011, the demonstration project has worked to open child welfare cases for homeless minors who have reported abuse and neglect, making the case to youth that extended foster care offers new youth-friendly placement options with higher levels of independence and self-sufficiency.  Sometimes cases have been opened, and sometimes not. The research team is testing a series of hypotheses to answer why and will be issuing a report with preliminary findings in the summer. There are currently efforts underway to replicate this demonstration project in the Central Valley and Los Angeles.

We know from the best available research that extended foster care will improve outcomes for youth in foster care. Let’s take this policy even farther by using extended foster care to help those abused and neglected children who have consistently fallen through the cracks, winding up homeless and alone.

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