1. Youth Briefs
  2. Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions
  3. Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions


Youth who are transitioning to adulthood need to have well developed self-esteem and self-efficacy skills that equip them to manage relationships in multiple contexts, including education and employment settings, as well as with friends and family members.1 Often, youth in the foster care system have lived through multiple traumas and disruptive events by the time they begin their transition to adulthood. This can include abuse and/or neglect, multiple foster home placements, lack of continuity in education, and an array of losses of relationships (e.g., friends, family, and/or siblings). Their life experiences can create additional problems resulting in mental illness, substance abuse problems, and a lack of confidence. These challenges impact the emotional and social development of foster care youth as they transition into adulthood.

Research on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults points to the importance of understanding the “vulnerability of teens, and the significance of this stage”2  and highlights the importance of positive, supportive relationships in the context of the continuing development of the adolescent brain. Ideally, foster youth should have a place to call home upon emancipation from the child welfare system, with connections to caring adults who can provide support, including helping them access necessary resources and services. Research suggests that youth in foster care who have natural mentors during adolescence have improved young adult outcomes. Connections to non-parental adults through informal mentoring is reported to enhance the outcomes of foster care youth in education/employment, psychological well-being, and physical health. Youth who had the support of a mentor also demonstrated a decreased participation in unhealthy behaviors, such as unprotected sexual activity, alcohol and substance abuse, and delinquent activities.3

When youth "age out" of the child welfare system with limited connections or without the support of positive, caring adults, they may have an increased risk of facing the following challenges:

Unstable housing or homelessness. Former foster care youth are half as likely to pay a mortgage or rent compared to their peers.4   Studies show a correlation between a history of foster care and homelessness as well as the impact of emancipation from state care on young adults.5  More than one-fifth of foster care youth experience homelessness for at least one day within a year of emancipation.6

The demographics of homeless youth point to special concerns for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young adults, who represent between five and ten percent of youth in foster care (consistent with representation of LGBTQ youth in the general population).7 Although studies on the percentage of homeless youth who are LGBT vary, analyses suggest that approximately 20 to 40 percent of these youth identify as a sexual or gender minority. Current studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from social service professionals, suggest that LGBT youth are significantly overrepresented in homeless populations compared to their proportion of the U.S. population.8

Further, LGBTQ youth, who may already be disproportionately represented in the homeless population, are disproportionately youth of color.9 The National Alliance to End Homelessness cites the critical role of youth services professionals who have the skills and proficiencies to support youth from multiple cultures.10

Learn more about runaway and homelessness among youth, including those in and aging out of the child welfare system.

Lack of adequate elementary and secondary education. Youth emancipating from foster care typically face many obstacles during their educational journeys, obstacles that can hinder their ability to graduate on time or receive a high school diploma. Prior to child welfare involvement, youth may have missed many days or even months of school due to residential movement by the biological family because of eviction, homelessness, or other issues. While in foster care, despite federal protections to ensure school stability, they may have had multiple placements that resulted in multiple school changes. Research has shown that students in foster care score 16 to 20 percentile points below their peers in state standardized testing and that fewer than 60 percent graduate from high school. Only three percent of children who have been in foster care go on to postsecondary education.11

Lack of employment and job training. Former foster care youth may have limited work histories and on-the-job training opportunities. Many lack the skills required to hold a steady job, or the incentive and academic preparation to attend a college or training program. Youth who do obtain employment may find only jobs with lower paying wages, which makes them vulnerable to poverty, and the inability to establish complete independence.12

Problems with physical health, behavioral health, and general well-being. Twenty-five percent of 19-year-old former foster care youth reported a higher incidence of health problems than non-foster care youth in a comparison study, including hospitalization due to illness, accident, injury, drug use, or emotional problems.13 The same study found that one-third of former foster care youth had mental health disorders including depression, dysthymia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, substance abuse, or substance dependence.

Lack of access to health care. Some states offer Medicaid for youth until 21 years of age, but others may terminate eligibility for Medicaid and other forms of public assistance earlier, causing youth to lose access to physical and mental health care after they emancipate and no longer receive services and supports from the child welfare system. (See a listing of each state’s children’s Medicaid plan.)

Justice system involvement. Youth in foster care who have a history of abuse and/or neglect are at a heightened risk for early onset of delinquency.14 Youth emancipating from foster care may be at greater risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system due to lack of support networks, low employment skills, and unstable living arrangements. A study of 100 former foster care youth found that, after they had been on their own for six months, 45 percent had been in trouble with law enforcement, 41 percent had spent time in jail, 26 percent were involved in the court system (with formal charges filed), and 7 percent were incarcerated.15

Lack of social connections. Permanent relationships with positive adults are a powerful protective factor against negative outcomes and can provide critical support to youth as they transition to adulthood. Youth in foster care often rely on adults who have provided professional supports through their roles in the child welfare system. Although an emancipating youth may desire autonomy from adult supervision, the transition is more successful when he or she has a strong connection to a trusted adult supporter. Establishing this relationship prior to emancipation is important, albeit not easy, given that many youth have had turbulent experiences with adults in the past.

1 HHS, 2011b
2 National Institute of Mental Health, 2011, p. 3
3 Ahrens, DuBois, & Richardson, 2008
4 Courtney et al., 2005
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008
6 Casey Family Programs, 2005
7 National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2007
8 Ray, 2006
9, 10 National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2007
11 National Working Group on Foster Care, 2008
12 Lenz-Rashid, 2004
13 Courtney et al., 2005
14 Sudol, 2009
15 Reilly, 2003