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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Aging Out of Foster Care: Reflection on Transition and Transformation

Written by Carol Wilson Spigner, D.S.W., emerita associate professor/clinician educator, University of Pennsylvania

This article highlights what we know about youth aging out of foster care and the policy and program responses and the challenges that remain.

What do we know?

Often described as "emerging adulthood," the development of the knowledge, skills, and judgement that allows a young person to function as a competent adult takes time. For children in foster care, aging out is driven in part by the legal definition of adulthood. Each year, approximately 20,000 youth in foster care turn 18 and find themselves on the brink of losing the support provided by the foster care system. Many youngsters enter care after the age of 12 for reasons of neglect, experience multiple placements, and are disproportionately children of color.

While these exits from care represent about 5 percent of the children in care on 1 day, the cumulative number of children exiting over time is substantial. In 5 years, approximately 100,000 young people will have exited care. To the extent that these youth are ill prepared for adulthood, they lose and society loses their contributions. In fact, they are likely to exit to circumstances that are similar to the ones that brought them into care. For young people, the outcomes are poor. They are at risk of homelessness. Fifty two percent have completed a high school diploma or GED. Only 3 percent have access to higher education. Their attachment to the workforce may be fragile, and they are at risk of incarceration, drug involvement, mental health issues, and early child bearing. There is increasing evidence that youth who are in care beyond age 18 fare somewhat better. The portion of young people who return to their family experience more stability in terms of housing, access to services, and health care.

What have we done?

Recognizing their vulnerability, a number of policy and program changes have been implemented which include federal funding of state services to prepare youth for independence, use of federal funds for housing and education vouchers, and incentives to states to extend the duration of care to age 21.

Some local housing authorities have developed supportive housing. Several public colleges and universities have provided scholarship programs and supportive services for children formerly in foster care. Selected child welfare programs have intensified their efforts to find permanent homes for these young people by doing an intensive review of all of their significant relationships in the past to see if a permanent connection can be made. Despite these efforts, not all children aging out have access to these services. In fact, some youth find their exits from foster care to be abrupt and unexpected.

New knowledge helps us better understand the emergence of adulthood as a lengthy and complex process, with full adulthood occurring in one's late 20s. Brain science has not only documented the impulsivity of adolescence but also the continued growth of the brain. There is opportunity for recovery from trauma and increased maturity when youth are provided with positive experiences and support. The Youth Thrive Framework has identified protective and promotive factors that are critical to youth development, including youth resilience; social connections; knowledge of adolescent development among parents, caretakers, and professionals; concrete supports; and cognitive and social emotional competence. This new knowledge needs to be the foundation for change.

What have we missed?

The child welfare system has not honored its commitment to safety, permanency, and well-being for these young people. Aging out of foster care is a symptom of system failure. In an effort to respond, additional resources and services have been provided, but we have failed to examine the systemic issues:

  • Aging out is accepted as inevitable.
  • Older youth are being served in a system designed for young children.
  • There is heavy reliance on placement rather than family support.
  • Poor outcomes are the effects of unnecessary removals, multiple placements, congregate care, and lack of permanency.
  • There is limited ability to address poverty-related neglect.

The problem of aging out calls for transformation of our system of service. Consistent with many calls for reform, the public investments need to be shifted from placement to community-based, family-focused work. Strategies must be pursued to reduce inequality and to address the needs for housing and food security. This realignment would result in fewer removals and increase access to services that are culturally and psychologically relevant. Given that many of these children come into care as adolescents, we need to deepen our understanding of adolescent development and structure services appropriately.

We need to eliminate aging out. To accomplish this, attention needs to be given to the following:

  • Reducing the number of removals of teens
  • Reducing the use of group care facilities
  • Elevating the need for permanency and permanent connections
  • Developing approaches to reintegrating these youngsters into their families
  • Elevating the voice of youth and parents in program planning
  • Creating safe spaces in communities where adolescents can come together, be supported and challenged

In addressing this issue, we need both a client and system perspective.