When we think about children exiting foster care we usually think they were either
reunified with their family or adopted, unfortunately, this is not the case for many children.
Approximately 23,000 youth “age out” or emancipate from care each year in the United States.
For these youth, foster care comes to an end when they turn 18. Turning 18 is already a difficult
transition, but for those youth who do so in care, the transition is even more difficult. Studies
have shown that those youths who age out of care are at higher risk for negative life outcomes
such as poorer health, less education, lower rates of employment, and experiencing
homelessness. In an attempt to lessen these negative outcomes, the federal government has
passed legislation such as 1986 Independent Living Initiative, 1999 John Chafee Foster Care
Independence Act, and 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
These pieces of legislation have helped to increase the number of independent living services
for these youth.
In 2013, Oklahoma was one of 18 sites across the country to receive a two-year planning
grant from the U.S. Department of Health. The goal of these grants was to identify those youths
most at-risk of experiencing homelessness after exiting foster care and develop an evidence-
based program to alleviate these risks. Upon receiving this grant, Oklahoma started the Road to
Independence team (RTI). The selection process for implementation was highly competitive and although
Oklahoma was not one of the five sites selected for implementation, the Road to Independence
Team was able to identify risk factors for youth aging out of care and implement some
programs to try and alleviate these risks.
Overall, the RTI identified approximately 1,600 youth who aged out of foster care between
2009-2013. Of those youth, 25% experienced homelessness. 31% did now have a high school
diploma or GED by the age of 19, only 33% filed a state income tax return, and of that 33% the
average income was only 13,200. Analyses showed that placement instability was the biggest
risk factor for experiencing not only homelessness but also adult incarceration. Despite not
getting selected for implementation, the RTI team still started an Independent Living pilot unit
with wraparound care in one region and partnered with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform
at Georgetown University to develop better communication and increased services for youth
with involvement in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The RTI team continues to make
an impact work to improve outcomes for youth who are exiting foster care.
Alisa West Cahill