Jennifer McClellan: Fostering Futures offers bipartisan help to young Virginians

Jennifer L. McClellan

All children should have a family to care for them, keep them safe, and help them thrive as they grow into adulthood. But not every child does.

Each year in Virginia, at a higher rate than any other state in the country, hundreds of young people leave our foster care system at age 18 before they have been connected to permanent families. Without adequate family and community supports, these youth “age out” of care and are at high risk of some dire consequences: homelessness, unemployment, dropping out of school, poor health, teen pregnancy, and court involvement.

Most youth who enter Virginia’s foster care system do so because they are abused or neglected. Many have chronic health and mental-health needs, and have endured trauma that can have lasting effects on their physical, emotional, and social well-being. These significant challenges would be daunting for anyone. They are particularly daunting for teenagers without a stable adult presence in their lives.

In even the most stable families, when a child turns 18, he or she is not ready to go out on their own. Parents do not stop providing support or guidance. Many young adults receive significant support from relatives — whether direct financial assistance, co-signing a school or car loan, or help with an apartment deposit. And many call their parents for advice through every stage of adulthood.

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Teenage years — especially that transition period into early 20s — are an important time for young people to practice skills they will need to become successful adults. When teenagers have a strong, supportive family around them, they can learn accountability from the mistakes they make without having the consequences turn devastating.

However, young people who age out of foster care are largely on their own. They have no room to make mistakes: a late rent payment can easily turn into an eviction; a missed deadline can derail student financial aid; a complicated health insurance claim can snowball into medical debt.

Fortunately, Virginia has an opportunity under the federal Fostering Connections Act to help support youth who age out of foster care as they transition to adulthood.

The “Fostering Futures” proposal — named by Virginia youth who have experienced aging out of foster care — is under consideration by the General Assembly this session. HB 203, co-patroned by Dels Scott Lingamfelter, Chris Peace, David Toscano, and myself, and SB 436, patroned by Sen. Barbara Favola, along with funding that Gov. Terry McAuliffe included in his introduced budget, bring strong bipartisan support toward enacting this program to help youth ages 18-21 who age out of foster care.

With $1.9 million of state funding over the next biennium, Virginia will be able to draw down $4 million in additional federal child-welfare funding to increase the breadth of support available to youth who age out of foster care up to age 21, including housing and casework services. In exchange, youth in this program must be in school, in job training, or working at least 80 hours per month.

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Implementing this program doesn’t just represent our best guess at how to help these youth: 30 states and the District of Columbia have already forged ahead with similar efforts — and seen great success. With such support, national research has shown that young people who age out of care are more likely to maintain stable employment, enroll and make progress in college, and seek health and mental-health treatment when needed. They are less likely to be evicted and to need other types of longer-term safety net assistance.

The additional federal funding also takes some financial strain off of localities that currently offer some limited services to these young people, and it assures equal access to support no matter where in the state a young person ages out of foster care.

During the General Assembly session each year, we hear many stories of people in need that pull at our heartstrings. But helping youth who age out of foster care is not just about “heartstrings” — it’s a policy issue that needs a policy response.

Children in foster care are in the legal custody of our government — quite literally Virginia’s children. Virginia’s legal obligation to these youth may end at age 18, but like any parent, our responsibility for their well-being does not operate on such a hard deadline. We owe it to them and the commonwealth to ensure they leave our care with a chance to become productive and successful Virginians. Fostering Futures is a smart, proven-effective transition program to do so.

Jennifer L. McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, represents the 71st District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at DelJMcClellan@house.virginia.gov.