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When children are abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents or when parents’ own difficulties (such as drug addiction, mental illness, and incarceration) leave them unable to provide adequate care, other relatives often step in. If no family members are able to take in these children, a court often places them in the care of other families or in institutions. And so, they enter the foster care system. Today, more than 500,000 children in America live in foster care – about 8 out of every 1,000 children. This is a vulnerable population. Children who enter foster care have emotional, behavioral, developmental, and health problems that reflect the difficult family and environmental circumstances that caused them to be removed from their homes in the first place. Most of the children in foster care return to their families or are adopted (often by their foster parents), but not all. In 2000, more than 19,000 of the oldest children left foster care – or “aged out” in the parlance of child protective services – and many were pretty much on their own. Usually, this happened when they turned 18.

If foster children, in general, are a population at risk, youth who age out of the system may be even more so. Research suggests that without the extended support most families provide young people in the transition to adulthood, youth leaving foster care face enormous challenges in building successful lives. They are less well prepared educationally, have a harder time embarking on a productive career, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to be involved with the legal system. However, it is worth recalling that many of the problems evidenced by foster children have their roots in experiences that occurred before they entered the foster care system.

Various strategies may be effective in reducing the number of young adults aging out of foster care, including ensuring that every child born in America is a “wanted” child, improving the home environments of children at risk of abuse and neglect, and accelerating the permanent placement of foster children when it is clear that their home environments pose too great a risk for them to return. And various approaches are being taken to help these vulnerable young people as they must navigate the waters of early adulthood largely on their own. Some of these approaches appear promising, but rigorous research is needed to confirm that what we think may work does, in fact, help this vulnerable population. (Author)
Child Trends
Washington, D.C.
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A program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services