Across the United States, there are approximately 400,000 children placed in foster care. In 2018, almost 5,000 of those children resided in Maryland. Placement in foster care happens for a variety of reasons, including abuse, neglect, or the death of a parent. Spending time in foster care increases the risk of mental health and substance abuse problems, incarceration, and unemployment. A particularly concerning risk associated with foster care is homelessness.
Homelessness in itself can lead to a host of problems including physical and sexual abuse, as well as substance abuse. A history of foster care correlates with homelessness at an earlier age, and for longer periods of time. Children who age out of foster care, meaning that they were unable to find permanency within a family while placed in the foster care system, are at particularly high risk of becoming homeless. About 40 to 50% of the 25,000 to 30,000 youths who age out each year will become homeless within 18 months.
An Ohio-based study on emancipated foster youth conducted between 1990 and 2008 demonstrated that only 59% of the population had a high school diploma or GED, 44% had employment, and 27% were collecting public assistance. Homeless former foster youth in Denver, Austin, and Los Angeles reported theft, drug dealing, and stealing as forms of income. Many members of this population do not have family to turn to for support, and do not have the education or identified skills to obtain stable employment. A Maryland survey on homelessness produced results suggesting that there is a need for additional supportive services for emancipating youth, given the large number of Marylanders who left foster care after age 16 and experienced homelessness prior to age 25.
Due to the lack of family support often experienced by foster youth transitioning out of the system, this group faces a higher demand for independence when compared to their peers without a foster care background. Additionally, these youths often face added barriers to achieving independence due to higher rates of mental illness and lower levels of education. Outcomes for this population are poor in comparison to the larger population, implying a need for additional services.
Expanding transitional living options, and increasing the age of emancipation while current limitations are addressed, may be useful considerations. Expecting total independence by 21, or 18 for many Maryland youth, seems unreasonable, especially when considering the many challenges faced by the foster care population. If we, as Marylanders, want to reduce homelessness and offer our foster children a brighter tomorrow, we need to address this hidden issue today.