What happens to young adults who exit foster care after turning 21 in our current care model? In the absence of familial support and concrete resources typically afforded to young people in the general population, many youth aging out of foster care end up dependent on the only “support” structures available to them: our criminal justice system, welfare, low-income housing, and mental and behavioral health programs.

Our system of foster care fails young adults who are approaching the age of 21 when they are forced to live independently. In other words, they are expected to exit care and live self-sufficiently, relying on themselves for survival. Many experience this stark reality after having been dependent on foster families since their early teens or younger; after having possibly lived in a group home until they were 18; after being moved to a state-funded apartment at 18 with classes as their only preparation to obtain the daily living skills needed to survive on their own. At 21, the state no longer provides them housing and no longer funds their education. Many are left without income, without a home and without the family support that 21-year-olds who have not been in foster care benefit from. Independent living does not work. It does not prepare these young people for a successful transition to adulthood; a new approach is needed.

What You Need To Know

Guiding young adults towards independent living is a model grounded in an economic and social environment that no longer exists. In the 1960s, it was likely that young adults in their mid-20s lived self-sufficiently. They were most likely married, earning a livable wage (even without a college degree) and starting a family.

Today, conditions are much different. Young adults in their mid-20s most likely still live at home with their parents, with almost half of this group unemployed. Without a college degree, there is a 25% chance someone in their mid-20s will live in poverty. Even among the most motivated, hard-working young adults, our current economy doesn’t permit the majority of them to obtain livable wages, purchase affordable housing or support a family.

The passage into “adulthood,” with its financial and familial independence, is getting delayed today until late 20s or even early 30s. If young adults with supportive family relationships cannot function independently in their early 20s, how can young adults who have experienced trauma, instability, social isolation and poverty for most of their lives be expected to do it?

Changing the Way

We are making a plea to rethink how we handle young adults aging out of foster care. Instead of striving towards independent living, a new model needs to be introduced that provides programs that promote interdependent living. In this model, young adults form close relationships with older adults and receive support from them. Support can include emotional, informational, financial, housing or material. Similar to young people in the general population who rely on their families for support late into their 20s, young people formerly in foster care may experience improved lives if they have strong social support networks, including the presence of at least one caring, committed adult.

Download PDF of Key Points

Get Involved

If you know a young person in foster care, reach out to him/her as a caring adult in his/her life. You just might change a life.

Contact Your Representative
Reach out to your representative or senator to share your thoughts on the need for new federal legislation that would mandate interdependent living services replace current independent living services. Each year since 2002, attempts to pass a Foster Care Mentoring Act have failed in Congress. Federal money needs to be directed towards interdependent living programs.

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About the author

Johanna Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP

Dr. Johanna Greeson is passionate about reforming the child welfare system, using research to build better futures for youth who age out of foster care, and realizing the power of connections to caring adults for all vulnerable youth. Her research agenda is resiliency-focused and based in the strengths and virtues that enable foster youth to not only survive, but thrive. Dr. Greeson’s published work includes scholarly articles on natural mentoring, evidence-based practices for older youth in foster care, including independent living programming, residential group care, intensive in-home therapy, low-income homeownership, and child/adolescent traumatic stress. During her doctoral training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Greeson developed an affinity for research methods, advanced statistical modeling, and collaborative multidisciplinary research with a number of peers and leaders in her field. Her work on various research projects integrated the disciplines of social work, sociology, public health, advanced statistics, and economics and community development, and provided her with fluencies that allow diverse collaboration and competencies to launch a productive program of research. Of particular note, during her course work she developed a theory- and research-based intervention for older foster youth, Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere (C.A.R.E.), intended to solve the aging out dilemma.