Nearly half of states have laws that explicitly permit the state child welfare system to continue providing foster care for children beyond the age of majority (usually no later than 19). However, the number of states that actually facilitate youth remaining in care beyond their 18th or 19th birthdays is significantly smaller. Over 20,000 young people have been emancipated from foster care annually from FY2002 through FY2006. While most young people have access to emotional and financial support systems throughout their early adult years, older youth in care and those who age out of care often face obstacles to developing independent living skills and building supports that ease the transition to adulthood. Older foster youth who return to their parents or guardians may continue to experience poor family dynamics or a lack of emotional and financial supports, and studies have shown that recently emancipated foster youth fare poorly relative to their counterparts in the general population on several outcome measures.
Recognizing the difficulties faced by older youth in care and youth emancipating from foster care, Congress created a new Independent Living initiative (P.L. 99-272)in 1986 to assist certain older foster youth as they enter adulthood. The legislation authorized mandatory funding to states under a new Section 477 of the Social Security Act. In 1999, the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act (P.L. 106-169) replaced the Independent Living Program with the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP) and doubled the total annual funds available to states from $70 million to $140 million. The law also expanded the population of youth eligible to receive independent living services — with no lower age limit — and gave states greater flexibility in designing independent living programs. Independent living services can refer to assistance in obtaining a high school diploma, training in daily living skills, and training in financial management, among other services. Amendments to the CFCIP in FY2002 (P.L. 107-133) authorized discretionary funding for states to provide education and training vouchers to eligible youth. Along with the CFCIP, federal child welfare law and other federal programs are intended to help older current youth in care and foster care alumni make the transition to adulthood. The federal foster care program has protections in place to ensure that older youth in care have a written case plan that addresses the programs and services that will assist in this transition, among other supports. Further, federal law authorizes funding for states to provide workforce assistance and housing to
older foster youth. Despite these efforts and the resilience displayed by current and former foster youth, policymakers and child welfare practitioners have suggested that at a minimum, young people need better support to build stronger connections with caring adults before leaving foster care and should have the option to remain in care upon reaching their 18th or 19th birthdays.