teen sitting on suitcase
Foster Care

Aging Out of Foster Care

What Is “Aging Out” of Foster Care?

Foster care refers primarily to the situation where children have to be removed from their biological family by child protective services due to extreme neglect or abuse. Many of these children are then placed in the custody of a foster family, a group home, or transitional placement, where they remain until they are eighteen or in some states until they are twenty-one years old.

Every year, around 24,000 teenagers in foster care in the United States reach the age of 18. At this age, these teens are expected to go out and start their lives on their own. These teenagers, many of whom are still in high school, are in desperate need of work, a place to live, and a mode of transportation in order to survive.

These children often age out due to having reached eighteen or twenty-one years old without being placed in a permanent home. Children who age out of foster care without finding a permanent home or healthy supports are at risk for homelessness, poor physical and emotional health, unemployment or underemployment, and substance use.

teenage boy standing against wall

Risks of Aging Out of Foster Care

For a young person growing up in foster care, turning 18 can be both an exciting milestone and a great source of anxiety. Youth aging out of foster care often face significant barriers to success. Many lack the support system needed to live independently. And they are often ill-equipped to go straight into jobs that pay well enough to cover all basic expenses such as housing, food, and transportation.

It is no secret that children who have experienced the foster care system have been exposed to some form of trauma. Youth who age out of the system are sent out into the world the day they turn eighteen (or twenty-one in some states) with no resources. Most of these youth do not even have a single supportive adult that can help them navigate the challenges of transitioning from the teen years to independent living. All of these things combined with the trauma they have experienced, leave them vulnerable and at a disadvantage as they are preparing for young adulthood.

teenager sitting against wall

Statistics of Children Who Age Out of Foster Care

The statistics for youth who never get placed with a forever family or home is heartbreaking. Youth who age out of foster care face many challenges, and their outcomes are often less than desirable. In addition to the number of youth who end up homeless, experience post-traumatic stress, or become incarcerated, many suffer from emotional and behavioral problems that make it hard for them to adjust to life on their own.

According to the National Council on Behavioral Health, 90% of youth aging out of foster care suffer from emotional or behavioral problems, double that of the average young adult. These issues ultimately lead to a higher rate of substance abuse and mental health issues down the road. Studies have also shown that teens who age out of care are also more likely to not graduate high school, have a child before the age of eighteen, or end up in jail.

The National Council on Behavioral Health states that statistics for youth aging out of foster care show:

• 67% will spend time homeless; 40% will have been homeless for at least a month, and 25% will have engaged in prostitution
• An estimated 30-40% of girls and 10-20% of boys engaged in the sex trade have spent time in foster care prior to being trafficked
• 60-75% will have significant behavioral health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder
• 32% will have no high school diploma or GED
• 70% will not complete a college degree
• 30% will be incarcerated at some point in their lives

woman helping to teenagers

How You Can Help

Many teenagers who have age out of foster care struggle to succeed on their own without the love and support of a family. You can help these youth in a variety of ways, including

Donating to Foster Care Organizations in Your Community

  • The majority of youth in care arrive at their first placement with little or no belongings. Donations to a local organization, whether in the form of gently used things or cash, are almost always put to good use right away.

Becoming a Mentor for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

  • You can become a mentor by taking a personal interest in the life of a youth in foster care whom you know, or by signing up for one of the many mentoring groups available in your community.

Becoming a Court Appointed Volunteer (CASA)

  • A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is a volunteer who has been appointed by the court to represent a child in foster care. A CASA spends time with the child, getting to know him and speaking with everyone involved in his life. CASA volunteers’ can provide youth with stability and hope, and many volunteers find the experience fulfilling.

Becoming an Advocate

  • If you have a heart for older youth in care but are unable to foster, you can advocate for the rights and well-being of the 400,000+ children in the foster care system in the United States simply by increasing awareness of the situation.

Volunteering with Your Local Foster Care Agency

  • There are numerous ways to help with youth aging out of foster care. You could volunteer at your local foster care agency to help with employment programs, helping with ACT/SAT prep, teaching independent living skills, and much more.

Becoming A Foster or Adoptive Parent

  • You can make a big difference in the life of at-risk youth by welcoming them into your home. These long-term connections and encouragement can give these young people the encouragement and support they need to pursue higher education, obtain stable housing, and form healthy relationships.

In conclusion, there are numerous ways to assist youth who are aging out of foster care. You can take the first step by contacting a local agency that works with youth who are aging out of the system. You could find that you can make a bigger difference than you ever thought. For more information on ways to help youth in foster care, check out our article 8 Ways to Support Foster Families.

Leslie is a licensed professional counselor. She works as a therapist at a marriage intensive retreat center. She is also a foster mom and police wife. Her and her husband live in Missouri with their two teenage sons and three dogs.