Rosemary J. Avery Professor and Chair Department of Policy Analysis and Management Cornell University Ithaca, New York. and

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Rosemary J. Avery Professor and Chair

Department of Policy Analysis and Management Cornell University

Ithaca, New York and

Madelyn Freundlich Child Welfare Consultant Excal Consulting Partners LLC

New York, New York


Rosemary J. Avery

Department of Policy Analysis and Management 119B MVR Hall Cornell University Ithaca, NY 14853 (607) 255-2578 (w) (607) 592-1513 (h) (607) 255-4071 (fax) email:

Working Paper – Do Not Quote Without Permission





The concentration of older youth in the child welfare system is a national issue. State and federal foster care program support typically ends at age 18 when youth are

developmentally unprepared to assume full adult roles and responsibilities. Many of these youth face the prospect of leaving state custody disconnected from supportive adults, services, and socioeconomic supports that would significantly increase their chances of becoming productive, self-sustaining adults. Termination of the foster care experience for these youths at such an early age creates a serious support gap during their transition to adulthood. This article considers the repercussion of discharging youth from foster care at age 18 based on recent research that demonstrates that youth at this age are not prepared to live “independently”. It examines the impact of terminating foster care support at time when other non-foster youth continue to receive a substantial amount of emotional and material assistance from their families. Drawing upon recent research findings, a new framework is proposed for state and federal policy regarding a support timetable and social work practice for youth transitioning out of foster care.



The concentration of older youth in the child welfare system is a national issue. The percentage of adolescents in foster care significantly increased from 36.4% in 1999 to 51.3% in 2003. In 2005, more than 100,000 youth aged 16 or older were in the foster care system, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2005 AFCARS report notes that 24,407 foster youth exited care to emancipation in that year (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006). Furthermore, minority youth are overrepresented among the population of youth aging out of care. More than 35% of youth aging out of foster care each year are African American, even though African America children represent only 15% of children under 18 in the U.S. (Metzger, 2006).

Many emancipating youth face enormous challenges during their transition from foster care and into early adulthood. The majority suffered from abuse, neglect, or abandonment prior to entering care, and many experienced multiple placements and loss of relationships with siblings and other important person in their lives while in care. Many face the prospect of leaving state custody disconnected from supportive adults, services and socioeconomic supports that would significantly increase their chances of becoming productive, self-sustaining young adults (Metzger, 2006). Data indicate that emancipated youth are more likely than youth with no history in foster care to experience homelessness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, legal system involvement,


State and federal foster care program support typically ends when a youth reach 18 at a time when youth are developmentally unprepared to assume full adult roles and responsibilities. The discharge of youth from foster care without permanent family connections and supportive services places the burden on youth to sustain themselves as they move forward to assume adult roles on their own. The termination of the foster care experience for these youths at 18 or even 21 creates a serious support gap during the transition to adulthood. This article considers the repercussion of discharging youth from foster care at age 18 based on recent research that demonstrates that youth at this age are not prepared to live “independently”. It examines the impact of terminating foster care support at time when other non-foster youth continue to receive a substantial amount of emotional and material assistance from their families.


The term “aged out” refers to youth who have reached the age when he or she no longer automatically qualifies for foster care services under the jurisdiction of the court and/or the supervision of the state’s child welfare agency. Each state sets its own age for automatic discharge from foster care, which typically is 18 but in some states, may extend to 21 years under certain circumstances (English, Stinnett, & Dunn-Georgiou, 2006). Of those states that extend foster care support beyond age 18, most require “just cause” exceptions for remaining in care and offer only limited services such as

educational support and an extension of Medicaid coverage.


(Christian, 2006). For example, Florida allows foster youth to petition the court for continuation of foster care to age 19. Iowa enacted a Preparation for Adult Living Program in 2006 that allows foster youth to continue to reside with his or her foster family beyond age 18 and extends Medicaid to age 21. A 2005 Oregon law allows a court to terminate foster care prior to age 21 only if the court determines that the youth has been provided adequate case planning and services and that the youth has safe and stable housing. In 2005, Texas authorized the extension of foster care eligibility and transition services to age 21 and requires that eligible youth up to age 21 be allowed to return to foster care. In 2006, Washington authorized its child welfare agency to allow up to 50 youth per year for three years to continue in foster care up to age 21 as needed to participate in or complete a post-secondary academic or vocational program (Christian, 2006).

The more than 20,000 youth who “age out” of foster care each year face

significant challenges after exiting care and do not fare well overall. The most recent and extensive study of aged out youth was reported in Courtney, et al. (2005) and Courtney and Dworsky (2006). They studied the well-being of youth leaving out-of-home care in the U.S. at the point they have been young adults for about one year. The study found that while some aged out youth were living in stable situations, moving forward with their education or employed in promising jobs, a majority were having significant difficulties during the early stages of the transition to adulthood. Many were neither employed nor in school, suffered from persistent mental illness or substance use


had aged out of foster care were doing worse than the general population of young adults across a number of important dimensions. Few emancipated youth appeared to be on a path that would provide them with the economic capital necessary to thrive in today’s economy. The authors found that they were less likely to be employed than their peers, their earnings from employment provided few with the means to make ends meet, and many relied on government assistance.

Importantly, the study found that young people who chose to remain under the care and supervision of the child welfare system through age 21 experienced significantly better outcomes than those who either chose or were forced to leave foster care. Allowing foster youth the option of remaining under the care and supervision of the child welfare system past age 18 seemed to offer significant advantages. The study found that young adults who remained in care past age 18 received more services to help them transition to adulthood than those who had left care, they had progressed further in their education, and they were more likely to have access to health and mental health services during that time period. Females who remained in care were less likely to become pregnant than their emancipated counterparts. Remaining in foster care to age 21 was associated with a decreased risk of economic hardship and criminal justice system involvement between ages 18 and 21.


result, federal law provides creates a disincentive for states to provide a continuation of foster care services. Although the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999

provides funding to states for “room and board” expenses for youth who remain in foster care beyond the age of 18, the level of funding is not sufficient to provide this type of support for the population of older youth who need ongoing support through age 21. In light of data from studies indicating the deleterious consequences of emancipation for many former foster youth, federal policy must be reexamined with regard to the use of chronological age as the determining factor for continuation of support for the very vulnerable population of foster youth who are currently expected to become

“independent” at age 18.


In this article, we examine the literature from developmental psychology/ sociology on the transition into adulthood of U.S. youth in the 21st century. The article reports on shifting patterns of home leaving, educational attainment, marriage, and family formation by young U.S. adults during the past five decades. It presents empirical


findings, a new framework for state and federal policy regarding a support timetable and social work practice for youth transitioning out of foster care is proposed.



During the first few decades of the 20th century, the developmental period defined as ‘adolescence’ remained relatively brief, spanning the period from the early to late teen years. At that time, only a very small fraction of youth in their late teens was still in school, and most had left their natal households and entered the labor force, although marriage and childbearing often did not occur immediately thereafter. In stark contrast, during the latter half of the 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st century, the transition to adulthood has become more complex, uncertain, and diverse (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2005). Young adults now navigate a playing field that has been fundamentally altered —economically, socially, and culturally—and these changes are working in tandem to create a vastly different landscape for the transition into adulthood (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, & Settersten, 2005). The span of years over which this transition occurs has increased and, as a consequence, a variety of adult behaviors are occurring at later stages than they did during the first half of the 20th century. Young adults well into their 20s today are still juggling work and school, living at home longer, and delaying marriage and their own nuclear family formation.

In a variety of regions in the United States, in other industrialized countries, across a variety of ethnic groups, and in studies using both questionnaires and interviews, people consistently state the following as the criteria for attainment of adulthood:


found that the top criteria for adulthood were defined as finishing education, obtaining a full-time job, becoming capable of supporting a family, and becoming financially

independent (Arnett, 2006; Tanner, 2006). More than ever before, ‘adulthood’ in the 21st century means learning to stand alone as a self sufficient person, capable of making choices and decisions independently from among a wide range of possibilities (Arnett, 1998). Furthermore, entry into adulthood has become deinstitutionalized and

individualization has increased. Young people today, compared to those of four to five decades ago, are increasingly being required by society to stand alone, rely on their own resources and their own sense of agency—for better or for worse (Mayer, 2004; Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004).

In contrast to legal definitions of ‘adulthood’ based on chronological age, research indicates that attaining adult status is a gradual and transitional process rather than an event in the life of a young person (Arnett, 1994, 2001, 2003). Cote (2006) notes that the transition to adulthood is now taking longer than in the past, delayed until the late 20s for a significant proportion of the population. For members of ethnic minority groups in the U.S., the criteria for reaching adulthood are different for both demographic and cultural reasons. In addition, specific childhood experiences such as childhood abuse and neglect have been found to extend the transition to adulthood.


& Kivenson-Baron, 2004). Over the past several decades in the U.S., there has been a shift toward later home-leaving and an increased likelihood of adult children returning home. Although the median age at first home leaving is about age 19, 40% of those who leave home for the first time at ages18 to 24 return to live in their parental household, about 25% do not leave for the first time until age 22 or later, and another 40% move back home at some point, although usually for only a temporary period (Aquilino, 1996; Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999). As a result, the proportion of adults aged 18 to 24 living with parents has increased steadily since 1970. The 2000 Census showed that 56% of men and 43% of women aged 18–24 lived at home with one or both of their parents (Fields & Casper, 2001). This percent was highest for non-Hispanic blacks and

Asians/Pacific Islanders. Furthermore, many young adults continue to live in their parents’ home until their early 30s, with 2.3 million men and 1.5 million women in the US between 25 and 34 in 2000 were still living in their parents’ houses (Di, Yang, & Lui, 2002).

College has become an ecological niche available to individuals who have the resources to delay entry into adult roles. In fact, industrialized countries have


the assumption of their adult roles until the investment in education has been completed. Data indicate that although teens continue to work in the labor force, a shrinking fraction enter full-time work before their early twenties, and a growing number do so only toward the end of their twenties (Furstenberg, Rumbaut & Settersten, 2005).

Despite these obvious demographic changes, child welfare policy in the U.S. conveys a clear message that adolescents in foster care are expected to take on

responsibility for themselves at a very early age. Policy sets forth clear expectations as to the functional status that young people in foster care are expected to attain at age 18, expectations that are simply out of sync with the practical reality of young people’s lives in the US today. Compared to a couple of decades ago, fewer and fewer teens are ready to assume adult roles before their mid-twenties (Furstenberg, Rumbaut & Settersten, 2005), and there seems to have been a cultural shift toward the thought that it is important first to advance in ‘psychological maturity’ before pursuing practical independence (Shulman & Ben-Artzi, 2003). The implications of these developments for child welfare policy are discussed later in this article.



which the youth develops capabilities to think logically and abstractly, formulate hypotheses and test them systematically, and develop the capacity for metacognition. Although Piaget acknowledged some individual differences in the timing and transitions from one stage of cognitive development to another, his theory posits that most people proceed through the same stages at about the same time and achieve formal operational development around the beginning of the second decade of life.

Recent research indicates decisively that Piaget’s claim of achievement of formal operation development by the early 20s is inaccurate (Overton & Byrnes, 1991; Lee and Freire, 2003). It indicates that in adolescence, and even into adulthood, a great range of individual differences exist in the extent to which youth transition into formal operations. Some adolescents and adults use formal operations over a wide range of situations while others use it selectively, and others appear to use it rarely or not at all. For example, research by Keating (2004) and Lawson and Wollman (2003) found that a large


The theory of emerging adulthood uses the expressions “learning to stand alone,” “self sufficiency,” and “independence” to characterize the tasks of emerging adulthood. Arnett (200) presents consistent data to indicate that the cognitive-emotional-behavioral changes during emerging adulthood represent progress toward independence rather than an abrupt transition into adult roles. One strength of Arnett’s theory of emerging

adulthood is that it incorporates psychological (i.e., identity) and sociological (i.e., geographic and occupational instability) features of this developmental period while emphasizing the role of cultural conditions (i.e., industrialization, secularism) in shaping emerging adult experiences. The theory posits, and recent research confirms, that by the late 20s and early 30s, only a small percentage of respondents see themselves as adults and have fully achieved behaviors indicative of adulthood.

A review research from cognitive and developmental psychology throws light on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes during emerging adulthood in how young people think, how they solve problems, and how their capacities for memory and attention change—changes referred to by scholars as “postformal thinking.” This research indicates that, rather than having achieved formal operations by the early 20s, cognitive-emotional-behavioral development often continues in important ways during emerging adulthood. Furthermore, the research indicates that the period of emerging adulthood is often one of especially heightened vulnerability as a consequence of

potential disjunctions between the developing brain and behavioral and cognitive systems that mature along different timetables and under the control of both common and


One of the major differences between Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood (2000) is its emphasis on the evolution into adulthood as a gradual process occurring well into the second decade of life rather than a life event achieved early in the second decade of life. Recent empirical work by Cohen, Kasen, Hartmark, Chen, Hartman, and Gordon (2003) highlights the nature of this gradual process. Drawing on data collected from over 200 narrative interviews, the researchers rated emerging adults’ behaviors in four domains on a scale from behavior “more like that of a child” to “approximated fully adult role behavior, defined by independence of parental control, expression of own goals and preferences, and

assumption of responsibility.” When the researchers mapped the trajectories of gains in independence from parents for individuals aged 17 to 27, findings revealed linear

increases over increasing ages in the dimensions of independence in residential, financial, romantic, and parenting domains for both males and females. Reinforcing these findings, a study by Shulman and Ben-Artzi (2003) that investigated age-related differences in individual attainment of developmental tasks during the transition from adolescence to adulthood found that developmental tasks are attained at different stages, and that the consolidation of adult status is achieved closer to the end of the third decade of life rather than the first.


coherence of evidence and arguments (Arnett, 2007). Grisso, et al. (2003) found that even though adolescents may be able to show the same level of cognitive ability as adults in making a decision, adolescents may make different decisions because they are more likely than adults to be affected by psychological factors, such as emotions of the moment and the desire to be accepted by peers.

The transition from adolescence into adulthood can be a heightened period of vulnerability specifically because of gaps between emotion, cognition and behavior. The transition can be wrought with complex and difficult emotions and attending high levels of negative affects and depression (Reinherz, Gianconia, Wasserman, Silverman, & Burton, 1999). Roberts, Caspi, and Moffitt (2001) found that even though emerging adults show improving patterns of affect compared to adolescents, this period is clearly set off from affective patterns in adulthood. The notion that adolescence is a heightened period of vulnerability has important implications for our understanding of many aspects of both normative and atypical development during this period (Steinberg, 2005).

Evidence suggests that emerging adults experience difficulty maintaining balanced cognitive-emotional representations, especially if emotions are strongly activated, as when issues of security and survival are threatened (Arnett & Tanner, 2006). Findings from studies by Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1999), Florian and Mikulincer (1997), and Greenberg, Schimel, Martens, Solomon, and Pyszczynski (2001) are consistent with the hypothesis that emerging adults are still easily swayed by their emotions to distort thinking in self-serving and self-protective ways.


development (usually achieved during the later stages of emerging adulthood) are related to greater skill in negotiating needs for autonomy/relatedness, and in balancing these relationship dimensions in close peer and intimate relationships. The authors note that individuals at lower stages of ego development have limited abilities to relate to others, while individuals at higher levels of ego development have the strength to facilitate and maintain intimate, collaborative relationships. Furthermore, a study by Scharf, Mayseless, Kivenson-Baron (2004) examined the association between attachment representations and successful coping with developmental tasks of emerging adulthood. These tasks include coping effectively with the home-leaving transition, advancing in the

development of the capacity for mature intimacy in friendships and romantic

relationships while maintaining close and autonomous relationships with parents, and developing a sense of efficacy and individuation. The researchers found that although these developmental tasks start evolving before late adolescence, they are a more central and salient part of emerging adulthood functioning.



brain develops by affording researchers the ability show how different parts of the brain function when performing cognitive tasks (Day, Chiu, & Hendren, 2006).

There is ample evidence from recent neuro-scientific research that the period of emerging adulthood, from about 18 to around 30, is a significant time for the

development of mature thought structures (Dahl & Spear, 2004; Sowell, Trauner, Gamst, & Jernigan, 2002). Even relatively simple structural brain measures, such as the ratio of white-to-gray matter, demonstrate large-scale changes during this period (Steinberg, 2005). For example, data from a study by Giedd (2004) were derived from an ongoing longitudinal pediatric brain MRI study conducted at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. Giedd found that although the total size of the brain remains relatively stable from the age of 6 to 30 years, the various subcomponents of the brain undergo dynamic changes at different stages well into the second decade of life. The research notes that the period of emerging adulthood appears to mark the emergence of these higher order cognitive structures rather than their culmination, and that only a portion of individuals may ever achieve them in adulthood (Arnett & Tanner, 2006; Labouvie-Vief, 2006).


goal-directedness, and future orientation (Masten, Obradovic, & Burt, 2006). Steinberg (2005) notes the connection between brain maturation and adolescents’ behavioral and emotional development.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, important for controlling impulses, is among the latest brain regions to mature, without reaching maturity until the second decade of life. Giedd (2004) found the relatively late development of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is important in the light of data linking DLPFC to the ability to inhibit impulses, weigh consequences of decisions, prioritize, and strategize. Their data suggest that the DLPFC is still “under construction” for a decade after the throws of puberty. Furthermore, studies point to the significant growth and change in multiple regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during emerging adulthood, especially with respect to processes of myelination and synaptic pruning – both of which increase the efficiency of information processing (Steinberg, 2005).These changes are believed to undergird improvements in various aspects of executive functioning, including long-term planning, metacognition, self evaluation, self regulation, coordination of affect and cognition, and response to risks and rewards.



adolescence and adulthood. Over the last twenty years, neuroscientists studying the brain have learned how stress and trauma influence the developing brain, and it has become increasingly clear from recent research that experiences in childhood have relatively greater impact on the developing child in adolescence and emerging adulthood than experiences later in life, primarily as a result of changes in brain structure during the developmental period (Perry, 2000).

DeBellis et al., (1999) explain that childhood trauma has a profound impact on the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social and physical functioning of children because it is the human brain that processes and internalizes traumatic experiences and mediates all emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and physiological functioning. The following brief overview of brain-mediated responses to stress and trauma provides a foundation for understanding the challenges facing youth aging out of foster care. The data cited below provide convincing evidence that the overwhelming stress resulting from abuse and maltreatment experiences in childhood are associated with adverse brain development and subsequent challenges for youth in foster care as they enter emerging adulthood.

Research reveals a strong link between physical, sexual and emotional

mistreatment and the development of psychiatric problems. Early in the 1990s, mental health professionals believed these abuse-related emotional and social difficulties


investigations into the consequences of early maltreatment appear to tell a different story. Because childhood abuse occurs during the critical formative time when the brain is being physically sculpted by experience, the impact of severe stress has been found to leave an indelible imprint on the brain’s structures and function.

Many of the stress-related brain abnormalities seen in abused children appear to be localized in the brain’s left hemisphere, where language and logical thought are processed. Indications are that childhood abuse and other extreme stressors can have lasting effects on brain areas involved in memory that set off a cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects that irreversibly alter neural development (Gollan, Lee, &

Coccaro, 2005; Teicher, 2002).

Teicher (2002) found that maltreatment alters the development of the limbic system. The limbic system is a collection of interconnected brain nuclei (neural centers) that play a pivotal role in the regulation of emotion and memory. Two critically

important limbic regions are the hippocampus and the amygdale. The hippocampus is thought to be important in the formation and retrieval of both verbal and emotional memories, whereas the amygdale is concerned with creating the emotional content for memory—for example, feelings relating to fear conditioning and aggressive responses. Structural brain imaging studies comparing child and adult brain structure show


early maltreatment and reductions in the size of the hippocampus, with suggestions that the amygdale might be smaller as well.

Gollan, Lee, and Coccaro (2005) found that individuals show various adaptive mental and physical responses to abuse and trauma, including physiological hyperarousal and dissociation. They explain that because the developing brain organizes and

internalizes new information in a use-dependent fashion, the more that a child is in a state of hyperarousal or dissociation, the more likely it is that the child will have

neuropsychiatric symptoms following trauma. Furthermore, researchers believe that when acute adaptive states persist, they can become maladaptive traits in adulthood (Perry, Pollard, Blakley, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995). Studies by Bremner (1997, 1999, 2001, 2006) found that individuals with a history of exposure to childhood abuse have a reduction in volume of the hippocampus, with associated deficits in hippocampus-based learning and memory. These data indicate that children under stress from abuse or neglect can develop impairments in academic achievement that are specifically related to the development of certain areas of the brain.

Other studies indicate that the neurological effects of childhood abuse may cause delays or deficits in a child’s ability to achieve age-appropriate behavioral, cognitive and emotional regulation (De Bellis, 1999). Brownlee (1999) found that abuse and neglect early in life can have devastating consequences, tangling both chemistry and the


these studies it appears that complex trauma exposure (such as early childhood abuse and neglect) can result in a loss of core capacities for self-regulation and interpersonal


Cook, Sinazzola, Ford, and Lanktree (2005) found that children exposed to complex trauma often experience lifelong problems that place them at risk for additional trauma exposure and cumulative impairment (e.g., psychiatric and addictive disorders; chronic mental illness; legal, vocational, and family problems), and that these problems often extend from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Gollan, Lee, and Coccaro (2005) found that exposure to early life maltreatment, in the form of childhood abuse and neglect, is a risk factor of affective instability, self injury, and personality disorders. Studies by Ito et al. (1993), Ito, Teicher, Glod, and Ackerman (1998), and Perry and Pollard (1998) support the hypothesis. They found that early abuse alters brain development with a deleterious effect on brain development, particularly limbic structure, which may lead to increased perception and expression of negative emotion that impact future emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social, and psychological functioning


anti-social personality disorders as adults than the matched control sample. Pine (2003) found that trauma exerts at least an approximate twofold increased risk for various forms of psychopathology in later life, including anxiety, major depression, and behavior problems. A study by Heim et al. (2000) concluded that severe stress early in life is associated with persistent sensitization of the pituitary-adrenal and autonomic stress response which, in turn, is related to an increased risk for adulthood development of mood and anxiety disorders.

One of the hallmarks of adulthood mentioned, as noted earlier, is the ability to maintain healthy and stable interpersonal relationships. Several studies suggest that experiencing stress, abuse, and neglect early in life negatively affects emerging adults’ capacity for intimacy and security in romantic relationships (Toomey & Nelson, 2001; Wallerstein, 1991). Using ethnographic and survey data on low-income families, Cherlin, Burton, Hurt, and Purvin (2004) found that women who have experienced abuse

beginning in childhood, particularly sexual abuse, are less likely to be in sustained marriages or stable cohabitating relationships and, instead, are more likely to experience transitory unions and, multiple short-term, mostly cohabitating unions with brief intervals between them.



which emerging adults are embedded continues to influence their developmental

trajectories and life changes. The family of origin functions as a base of operations for the explorations of emerging adulthood, both literally through co-residence in a parental household and parental financial subsidies and other material support, and figuratively through the availability of parents and kin as sources of wisdom and guidance in making one’s way in the world (Aquilino, 2006; Handel, 1990; Parks, 2000). These family relationships guide a young person’s expectations, feelings, and information processing as well as emotion regulation in situations that are attachment related (Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004). Findings from longitudinal studies of the associations between parents’ support for, and adolescent progress toward, separation-individuation reveal that healthy separation-individuation predicts adjustment and the ability to gain

adult-sufficiency in emerging adulthood (O’Conner, Allen, Bell, Hauser, 1996; Bell, Allen, Hauser, & O’Connor, 1996; Allen & Hauser, 1996).


presence of, and attention from, parents and is enhanced when the family is embedded in social relationships with other families and community institutions. If these social links are stable, social capital is strong; if they are not, social capital may be relatively fragile (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995)

A significant proportion of young adults leaving foster care do not have

relationships or connections with parents, extended family members, or significant other adults who could provide the needed social support to help them make a successful transition to adulthood. In many cases, child welfare agencies have discontinued efforts to sustain youth’s relationships with family, reconnect youth with family members with whom contact has been lost over time, or assist youth in developing new relationships with caring adults who can become “family” for youth as they enter emerging adulthood. As a result, youth face exits from foster care without the support that parents and/or extended family members normatively provide. They lack the social capital that it is understood as vital to other youth’s transitions to emerging adulthood and beyond.


societies require to establish themselves as independent young adults (Masten, Obradovic, & Burt, 2006).

The absence of family relationships in the lives of many youth who age out of foster care is a critical factor that is associated with their poor outcomes post-foster care. Research on attachment styles and emotional regulation suggests that securely attached emerging adults behave quite differently in many tasks of emotion and emotional representation than do insecurely attached ones. Individual differences in temperament (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000), attachment history (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001), or difficult life situations beyond one’s control (Labouvie-Vief, Zhang, & Jain, 2003) appear to be critical factors in the degree to which young adults are able to garner and utilize social capital in their lives.


relationships and with higher perceived support from parents (Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004).

Another body of work has been published on the influence of family resources on children’s ability to overcome adversity. Within both psychology and sociology, a

number of studies have pointed to the importance of parental investment in explaining diverse patterns of coping with social and economic disadvantage (Clark, 1983;

Garmezy, 1985; Rutter & Madge, 1976; Werner & Smith, 1982; Williams & Kornblum, 1985). In their study, Furstenberg and Hughes (1995) examined the extent to which adjustment in emerging adulthood was linked to the possession of social capital by the family—that is the degree to which the parents and children were embedded in a protective social network and were themselves closely bonded unit with mutual

expectations, trust, and loyalty. The study sample consisted of a sample of mostly African American teenage mothers who had spent much of their lives living in poverty or near poverty. Generally, the results showed a strong and fairly consistent pattern. Most of their measures of social capital were related to markers of socioeconomic success in early adulthood. Furthermore, measures of emotional bonding within the family were related to better mental health outcomes, further suggesting that distinct aspects of social

relationships are especially important to certain youth outcomes.


exits from foster care. Likewise, recruitment for a new permanent family through adoption or guardianship that could have provided the requisite social capital also ended well before their exit from care. These common patterns of services for youth –

reflecting a focus on preparing youth for “independence” at age 18 and a lack of focus on developing and nurturing the youth’s social capital — accentuate the need to develop and implement policy and practices that ensure that youth have permanent committed

relationships well before they are at risk of leaving care to live on their own (Setterson, 2005).


Imposed emancipation from foster care, whether it be at age 18 or 21, means that many youth who have lived in more or less protected environments while in foster care find themselves without a safety net of any kind, and often quite abruptly (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2005). The evidence discussed in this article leads one to question the wisdom of the specified age boundary in law and practice. The results of studies that have examined the post-foster care functioning of former foster care youth indicate that most emancipated youth simply cannot make it on their own at that age (Furstenberg, Rumbaut & Settersten, 2005). Many older youth still in foster care struggle with achieving multiple ‘adult’ task competencies articulated by society, including

education and employment. Many have disabilities in domains of functioning that are critical to negotiating adult challenges, and many face woefully inadequate systems of social supports at the time of emancipation (Masten, Obradovic, & Burt, 2006).


mandatory transition at age 18 or 21. They are more likely to have limited education and employment experience and poorer mental health, are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system, and are at higher risk of engaging substance abuse (Voices Issue Brief, August 2004). These youth simply do not yet have the developmental maturity needed for successful entry into adult roles—especially those with emotional, psychological, educational, and behavioral deficits resulting from early childhood

experiences of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. It is no surprise that among those foster youth who are not equipped for ‘independent living’ one would expect to find extended periods of identity confusion that interferes with productive coping behavior (Cote, 2006; Halperin, 2001). Independent living is simply not a feasible option for many of these emancipated youth who, unlike most children, do have the supports of stable family and community networks (Voices Issue Brief, August 2004). As the research makes clear, not even these supported, non-foster youth are ready for independent living.

Of particular concern are youth aging out of foster care who are members of ethic minority groups. Phinney (1990) notes that emerging adulthood may be extended for members of ethnic minority groups because, in addition to personal identity exploration facing all emerging youth, members of ethic minority groups must also deal with identity issues in relation to their ethnic and racial heritage. These ethnic identity domains are far more central for minorities than for majority group members (Phinney & Alipuria, 1990). For minorities, a sense of membership in an ethnic, racial, or cultural group is an


have to continually negotiate their sense of self in relation to other groups. Minority youth often experience a longer period of the fluidity that characterizes emerging adulthood that extends well into the 20s and beyond (Phinney, 2006).


It is essential that policy be informed by research that confirms the theory of “emerging adulthood” as a transitional period from adolescence to adulthood and that has led to a far richer understanding of brain development in the context of adolescence and emerging adulthood, particularly for adolescents who early childhood experiences involved abuse and neglect. Child welfare policy in connection to the termination of the foster care experience must be reexamined in several respects.

The inflexible and rigid life course policy model that has driven services and supports for youth aging out of foster care must be eliminated.


inflexibly tied to the age of 18 (with a few exceptions). Transition out of foster care continues to be defined mainly by chronological age rather than by an individual’s need for services, support and guidance into adulthood. Research indicates that youth who are

not in public child welfare system continue to receive familial support far beyond age 21.

It is our conclusion, therefore, that states’ rigidity in defining eligibility for foster care services by chronological age creates a gap in support that jeopardizes the ability of youth aging out of care to successfully transition to adulthood.

Services and supports must be aligned with realistic expectations for independence, with greater emphasis placed on family relationships and connections

State child welfare policies for youth aging out of care center primarily on preparing them to live ‘independently’ upon leaving the system. But, based on the evidence presented earlier, the premise that youth can and should live ‘independently’ in early adulthood is simply outdated (Foster & Gifford, 2005), failing to grasp the realities of 21st century US society. Independent living training should be viewed as preparation for adulthood, recognizing that interdependent living is the goal for all youth

transitioning to adulthood. As such, preparation for adulthood must be seen as a set of invaluable, age-appropriate life skills necessary for all young persons who are preparing to enter emerging adulthood and eventually transition to full adulthood. For non-foster youth, these skills are imparted by their parents and extended family; for foster youth, these skills traditionally have been ‘taught’ in Independent Living training programs. Although these programs have the potential to provide invaluable skill training for foster youth during their transition to adulthood, they are not a substitute for the social


There has been a growing recognition that the child welfare system, with its shift in focus from family to independent living, has failed to work with youth to identify and sustain important relationships in their lives, including, for some youth, relationships with parents and extended family members. Research suggests that many youth, upon leaving care at age 18, return to their families. Yet, little or no work is done to prepare families and youth for such reconnections, maximizing the strengths of these relationships and minimizing any potential harm. For a number of years, advocates have raised concerns about the fact that a focus on the provision of independent living services during this period can skew child welfare practice away from efforts to find permanent committed families for foster youth through adoption or guardianship (Courtney & Heuring, 2005). A top priority for foster youth who are nearing the age at which they will age out of foster care should be establishing (or re-establishing) lifelong family or family-like

relationships which offer youth a stable living arrangements and support and that are as legally secure as possible. The goal for each youth should be a caring adult(s) committed to functioning in a parental capacity for the youth throughout life.


terminate foster care support without having secured a permanent, nurturing adult connection that will function as the social scaffolding for youth as they transition into adulthood. Although life skills training is valuable and essential for all emerging adults, regardless of their foster care affiliation, the primary goal of foster care services for young adults at risk for aging out of care should be lifelong connections with committed caring adults (Bussiere, Pokempner, & Troia, 2005), within their own birth families or through recruitment of new families who offer legal family relationships through

adoption or guardianship or, if that is not possible, lifelong, non-legal connections. Youth should not be discharged from care until these efforts have been successful (Metzger, 2006).

Although there currently is usually a cessation of family reconnection and recruitment activity well before a youth reaches age 18 with an intensified focus instead on independent life skills development, there are some hopeful signs are on the horizon. California recently strengthened permanency planning for older foster youth through legal requirements designed to ensure that no child leaves foster care without a lifelong connection to a committed adult (Assembly Bill 408, 2003). The law requires that agencies train child welfare professionals on the importance of maintaining relationships with individuals who are important to children in foster care, ways to identify those individuals, and methods of supporting those relationships (Bussiere, Pokempner, & Troia, 2005). It is our opinion that all states should follow California’s lead in this regard.

Federal funding for foster care should be continued beyond the age of 18.


requirements. The chief concern for most states that are considering the unqualified extension of foster care eligibility is the pressure on state budgets. Only about one–half of foster children nationwide are eligible for federal financial participation in foster care, and federal funding generally does not extend beyond age 18. As a result, foster care services and supports past age 18 are usually state-funded (Christian, 2006).



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