"Doing it Right" for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

May 7, 2013

Success Beyond 18, a national campaign, kicks off in DC

Every year, 30,000 young people "age out" of the foster care system—they turn 18 and are no longer eligible for foster care services. Many find themselves suddenly responsible for their own basic needs, cut off from any help from the system. Without the proper supports, the negative outcomes are staggering: more than one in five of these youth will become homeless, fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25, and 71 percent of these young women will be pregnant by age 21. The cost to the country tops an estimated $7.8 billion per year.

Don’t let the numbers numb you; they represent real young people with goals, aspirations and hopes of charting a path toward productive adulthood.

Success Beyond 18 youth fellows and advocates with Delaware Governor Markell at the May 6 launch event

On May 6, several of these youth came to Washington, DC, to share their stories and launch a national campaign, Success Beyond 18, that aims to raise awareness about the issue and build a better path for young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood.

The campaign is a project of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, which works to improve foster care policies and practices at the federal, state and local level.

Connecticut Foster care alumnus Sixto Cancel summed up the absurdity of aging-out this way: “At 17 we’re teenagers, at 18 we’re magically adults. We need policies and practices in place to help us transition.”

States Lead the Way

While aging out of foster care is a national problem, states are the true laboratories for innovation and the focus of this campaign, since foster care systems are controlled by each state rather than federally. This campaign seeks to bring national attention to the issue, and is at the same time working closely in 15 states to measure the impact of systems change and make best practices available to other states.

The good news is states currently have a lot of flexibility in designing an effective system for their populations, says Barbara Langford of Mainspring Consulting, who participated on the policy panel at the event.

“This is where advocates come in—to help states understand those details,” Langford said.

Success depends on all sectors in a state working together towards the same goal. “The issues these young people aging out of foster care face are not in the purview of one department or group and not another,” Maryland Gov. Jack Markell (D) said in his keynote at the May 6 launch. “These kids don’t care what agencies deal with what—they just know they need help, and are looking to us to address these issues.”

States that have made progress are seeing that extended services actually save money by supporting young people to get stable housing and hold down jobs, and thus contribute to the local economy.

An Equal Shot at a Successful Adulthood

The Success Beyond 18 campaign has defined three major goals, based on extensive research, reviews of emerging state innovations and direct input from young people themselves.  

It’s an issue of basic fairness, as Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a major sponsor of the campaign, put it. Young people, he said, have every right to ask, “’Am I not just as special, as worthy, as valuable, as precious, as any other child that you care about?’ That is what this campaign is about.”

Goal 1Extend care for young people beyond 18 to at least 21 and “do it right” by ensuring services and supports are based on the unique developmental tasks of this life stage and their legal status as adults.

Sixto Cancel, age 21 , a foster care alum-turned-advocate from Connecticut, saw a lot of his peers who weren’t ready for college get left behind because adults weren’t able to meet them where they were. “I didn’t trust adults,” he said, when he was younger. It wasn’t until a Jim Casey site staff person took the time to talk with him and understood what he gone through, that he realized that she was there to help him get what he needed to prepare for the next step—which, for him, was college.

Some of his peers were left behind, however. “The system gave me the best next task for me, which was to go to college. That was right for me, but it wasn’t for some of his peers. “That’s not the next step for everyone,” he said. “The system needs to meet everyone where they are and help them prepare.”

Goal 2: Fully promote youth engagement in case planning and decision-making for all young people in foster care age 14 and older.


Joshua Grubb, 21, of Tennessee described a time when his case workers got together and “checked off” a list of steps that said he was on the right track, while he was left silent and uninvited in the conversation. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that he finally felt able to articulate his own concerns and needs. As a result, he was moved to an environment that he says suited him best and helped him grow: placement with the parents of a friend, who eventually adopted him.

Several states are making progress in involving young people directly in the planning for their placements as well as their aging out supports. In New Mexico, for example, young people over age 14 are provided with youth-directed advocates to ensure they have a say, and in Iowa youth over 14 are now able to attend the planning meetings that affect their futures.

The campaign itself is also practicing what it preaches when it comes to this goal: Young people have been an integral part of the creation of this campaign through the Jim Casey Youth Fellow program, which brings young people from Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative sites to provide input regarding the implementation of Initiative strategies and policy goals. These young people’s voices, stories and perspectives were given significant airtime during the event.

Goal 3: Provide quality oversight to ensure that developmentally appropriate services begin no later than age 14 and continue at least age 21, and ensure accountability for positive life outcomes for all youth in foster care

When Nicole Byers was in foster care in Delaware as a young teen, she says she was often given information and asked to sign forms in written in hard-to-decipher “adult language.” In court, adults talked on her behalf without helping her understand the nuances of what they were saying.  

Struggling to make sense of it was like listening through a closed door, she says, and “I wanted to hear what was going on beyond that closed door that affected me.” The Success Beyond 18 campaign wants to make sure more young people are on the right side of the doors that affect their futures.

Bonus: Notable Quotables from the Launch Event

“We need to think of these young people as our children and our families.  That is the only way we can do better and create change that works for the young people—not only based on what works for the organizations.” –  Leonard Burton, COO of Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative

If foster care systems are going to expand, they have to look different. It can’t be the same system, just longer. We need them to be better. This isn’t ‘foster care: the sequel.’

– Mike Peno, foster care alumnus

“Every time you take a breath, a young person has aged out of care without supports. This campaign can help so many people—it is just as vital as breathing.”

– Nicole Byers, former foster youth and advocate

“We are giving youth a meaningful voice in shaping their future — don’t they deserve that?”

– Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D)

Success Beyond 18 PSA:


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Alison Waldman is Editorial Associate at SparkAction.

Caitlin Johnson and Thaddeus Ferber contributed to this blog.




Alison Beth Waldman