Children raised in foster homes tend to have a high morbidity. They have developed a similar prevalence of serious physical and mental problems comparable to those of other disadvantaged children populations. The reasons a child may end up in foster care are vast: unfit parents, abusive households or complex behavioral issues. If children placed into the foster care system are not reunited with their families while they are young, they will have to face the challenges of aging out.
Overall, foster care in the state of New York comprises of 20,000 children. In New York City alone, around 1,000 adolescents age out of the foster care system every year. The undesirable statistics for the kids left on their own are staggering. Between 18% to 26% of children who have aged out of foster care will end up in homeless shelters and approximately 50% will fail to find employment after aging out of foster care.
Previous studies and authorities have offered solutions to improve the lives of the “aging out” demographic. It is crucial to study this age group as it may contribute to the higher morbidity in this vulnerable population. Housing instability is one of the most prominent problems facing these kids. Young people who experience housing issues are at an increased risk for developing mental health issues, struggling with substance abuse and becoming victims of criminal activity.
Compounding the problem, older youth exiting the foster care system are even more likely to experience unplanned pregnancy, commit criminal activity, abuse illicit substances and endure unemployment. Our study was designed to further the research on residents aging out of the foster care system. It was determined that these residents view finding housing as the most intimidating aspect of aging out of the foster care system, and there are many other concerns that seem to arise as consequences.
The children’s points of view are particularly important in the foster care community. Foster children are parts of a vulnerable population who may not always have the ability to verbalize their needs and wants. We, in collaboration with The Parsons Child And Family Center, the largest multi-service agency in New York’s Capital Region, explored the concerns and obstacles of residents aging out of the foster care system. With no institution influence, the foster residents used their own words to elucidate common obstacles that they have identified.
Our qualitative research study with Parsons Child and Family Center included 13 residents. Eligible participants were between 17 and 20-years-old at the time of interview. Participants were asked about their three concerns in order of importance which they feel could be obstacles and prevent them from smoothly transitioning to life outside of Parsons Child and Family Center.
After organizing participants’ answers into common, recurring themes of concern, one potential obstacle stood apart from the rest. With respect to the cumulative total of self-identified concerns by residents, regardless of ordinal importance, “housing” was most identified concern of the group. There were 34 total concerns self-identified by 13 residents. Seven (20.6%) of these 34 concerns fell into the recurring theme of housing; therefore, more than half of the 13 interviewed residents viewed housing as one of their top three obstacles most concerning as they age out of foster care. Education and money were tied at 11.8% each as the second most identified obstacles.
Housing was also identified as their number one obstacle to aging out of foster care. Of the 13 most important obstacles from the 13 residents, housing, again, was clearly the largest concern of the group. Four (30.8%) of the 13 residents answered housing as their biggest concern. The next most important concerns were education, money, and going to jail at 2 out of 13 (15.4%) each, respectively. The pattern of housing as the cumulative, most concerning obstacle self-identified by residents, followed by education and money, is reflected again by these answers.
The theme of housing as an obstacle took different shapes from different participants. When asked, “What are your three most important concerns of aging out?” several participants simply said “Housing.” Other residents made statements such as, “Figuring out where I’m going to live.” Another resident said, “Finding an apartment.” For the purpose of this qualitative study, these examples of anticipated obstacles from residents were grouped into the recurring theme of housing. We grouped other similar identified concerns into recurring themes as well. For example, “Going to college” or “Getting into culinary school or finishing school” were all grouped into the recurring theme of education.
Aging out of the foster care system is a tricky and problematic issue that has multifactorial influences. The consensus is that the most pressing concern is housing stability. To address this issue, housing programs have been developed to aid this problem. The Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher Program Section VIII is a government-subsidized housing program that normally requires tenants to pay 30% of their adjusted gross income. Many foster youth are eligible for the program, and in some cases, they are given preference over others who apply.
In most communities, demand for this type of housing often exceeds the supply. Furthermore, this housing arrangement often provides an inflexible selection of housing locations, unhealthy living conditions or necessary support systems that foster care “graduates” may need for successful development. While somewhat stable, the negative impacts of Section VIII housing may outweigh the positive impacts as poor living conditions may lead to poor physical and mental health: which directly affect the foster resident’s capacity to continue employment and education.
The development of Independent Living Programs was thought to be another solution to some of the housing difficulties faced by transitioning foster youth. Independent Living Programs exist to help bridge the gap for foster care graduates attempting to achieve self-sufficiency but who are not ready yet. These programs allow residents to live alone or with roommates in dwellings with an employee, usually social staff, living on site. Support is provided to the residents in the form of classes on life skills, employment, money management and interpersonal skill building. However, the competence and accessibility of these transitional programs vary significantly not only by region, but also by county of residency. Large urban areas are, unsurprisingly, home to the largest populations of foster youth in the United States.
Housing grants are less available in these costly, urban areas and certain benefits are available only to youth with specific qualifications such as full-time education or employment. The stipulations placed to received benefits from certain programs potentially could end up excluding those who are in the most dire need. This is further evidenced by surveys of former or current foster youth that reveal a large gap between the number of foster youth aging out who need transitional housing and the number who ultimately receive it.
Many youth find that transitioning to financial self-sufficiency can be abrupt as they are asked to find secure and safe housing. These youth are left with limited resources and ineffective housing programs which leave them at heightened risk of experiencing homelessness or unstable. dangerous situation. It is estimated that 25% to 50% of foster residents aging out of programs have couch-crashed, moved regularly, had trouble paying rent or faced eviction in the past.
While our study has not been published, we have collected and analyzed the data. Through it, we found that foster care residents view housing as the most intimidating aspect of aging out of the foster care system. While intuitively, it could be assumed that housing would pose a significant issue, it was very important for us to speak directly to the children preparing to leave the foster care system and hear firsthand their experiences. The aging out process is one of the most crucial parts in these foster children’s lives, and the housing crisis, along with all the dangers and risks it poses to their well-being, needs to be addressed urgently.