Congress established the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood, known as Chafee, in 1999. That means the program, which provides support to assist young adults transitioning out of the foster care system, is now 23, the same age when a young person who’s experienced foster care stops receiving any federal support from the child welfare system.
Chafee was one of the first pieces of legislation to call attention to the distinct needs of young people transitioning out of the foster care system, also known as transition-age youth. It also shed light on the shortage of federal investments dedicated to this critical transition, when too many young adults struggle with unemployment, homelessness, and other challenges.
Yet, 23 years after the program’s inception, grim statistics continue to show an unsettling share of transition-age young adults struggle in these critical years. One in 3 experiences homelessness between ages 17 and 21, more than 2 in 5 are unemployed at age 21, and 1 in 5 has been incarcerated between ages 17 and 19. Adding to their responsibilities, some of these young adults are also parents: 1 in 10 by age 19 and 1 in 4 between ages 19 and 21.
Below we offer four lessons from 20 years of Urban research that could help Chafee better prepare transition-age young people for stability and success in adulthood.
Recognize young adults’ unique needs and experiences
All young people have different assets, skills, needs, and experiences, making one-size programming and services ineffective. For transition-age young people moving into employment, no single program will fit everyone. Though program models vary, the programs we have studied recognize that young adults often need supplementary supports—such as transportation, cell phones, child care, and housing—to make working possible.
Similarly, to allow students to concentrate on their education, programs for young people with foster care histories pursuing postsecondary education need to also provide supports related to housing, finances, relationships, health, and life skills. Ongoing coaching or similar models that employ people knowledgeable about programs, services, and systems can help young adults find, connect to, and navigate the resources necessary for success.
Remove obstacles to resources
The design and accessibility of Chafee programs and services vary widely across states. In our study of the Chafee Education and Training Voucher program, we found that a program’s application process can affect young people’s access to services they’re eligible for. Our study showed notable differences in how states design the voucher programs and in how simple or complicated students find the application process. Similarly, in studies related to housing programs, we heard that many young people never complete their applications, frequently because of challenges obtaining necessary documents.
Some states have trained case managers to specifically serve transition-age young people. These case managers learn about adolescent and young adult development and become familiar with resources appropriate for this group. With the expansion of extended foster care, more young parents are in foster care, and case managers can help them access the additional supports they need.
Create service “off-ramps” instead of “cliffs”
Child welfare administrators and providers, young adults, and others involved in the foster care system acknowledge the harms of a service cliff, or when services abruptly end; young adults aren’t ready to go from having services to not having services—often over a single day—on their 18th, 21st, or 23rd birthday.
We heard this when discussing states’ decisions to extend Chafee services to young adults beyond age 21, approaches to case management for young adults, and programs designed to help young adults access and keep housing. Though some child welfare agencies provide “off-ramps,” or tiered services in which benefits gradually lessen, these practices aren’t universal. And we’ve found that abruptly ending services can result in negative outcomes like the immediate loss of housing.
In addition to off-ramps, young adults would also benefit from opportunities to stop and restart services as their needs and circumstances change. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of all 18-to-29-year-olds lived with their parents to bridge gaps in their lives. Having that opportunity has protected many people as they enter and navigate adulthood. Policies could do the same for young adults transitioning from foster care who may not have such family resources.
Increase funding and technical assistance to states
When Chafee passed in 1999, it doubled the amount of funding for independent living services for young adults in foster care. But that funding remained constant for nearly 20 years while the cost of living rose roughly 50 percent.
The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 increased the funds, but only by about 2.1 percent. The legislation also extended the age through which a young adult can use Chafee funds from 21 to 23, spreading the available funds across a wider age group. Many states didn’t change their processes when the age limit changed, however, because they felt their funding already didn’t meet the needs of their young adult populations. That means Chafee’s underfunding merely extended when young people aging out of foster care may face the services cliff.
Chafee funding needs a significant boost to meet the program’s goals. But for any funding increase to improve outcomes for transition-age young people, states need more technical assistance and more emphasis on evaluation to produce evidence of what works.
After 23 years, Chafee still falls short of its goals to support young adults transitioning out of foster care. But 20 years of Urban research suggest Chafee could reach its potential with more funding, assistance with program evaluation, and programs and services that attend to transition-age young people’s unique circumstances, developmental needs, and assets.