Lessons from Washington State: When We Build Excellent Extended Foster Care Systems, We Show Youth We Care About Who They Grow Up to Be

Jennifer Pokempner, Child Welfare Policy Director,
Photo of Seattle's skyline.

This blog is a post in our “Doing Extended Care Right” blog series. Each blog will highlight a state that has extended care and promising aspects of its program. We hope this will lead to more conversations and reforms around policies for older youth. 

Washington State has had extended care in place for over a decade and continues to innovate - constantly expanding the program to cover the gaps in services for transition-aged youth. Meaningful and active youth engagement in policy reform has been a unique and consistent feature of advocacy around extended foster care in Washington, and accounts for the high priority this issue has been given in the state where annually about 500 youth age out of foster care. 

Just last month, advocates in Washington - led by The Mockingbird Society - achieved important legislative victories to further improve their extended care system through the passage of SB 6222, Concerning Expansion of Extended Foster Care Eligibility (Signed March 9, 2018). The Mockingbird Society is an organization committed to improving foster care and ending youth homelessness. We had the opportunity to interview the Executive Director, Annie Blackledge, as well as advocates and Youth Network Representatives Azia Ruff and Maven Gardner, to learn more about the reforms, what they mean for young people in Washington, and what they mean for advocates across the country working hard to provide an extended foster care system that truly engages youth and supports them in achieving their goals as they transition to adulthood. 

The Importance of Extended Foster Care

Extended foster care has been a longstanding focus of The Mockingbird Society because they understand that supporting youth in their late teens and early 20s is central to a successful transition to adulthood. The majority of youth across the country are not living on their own and supporting themselves at age 18. Instead, they are receiving the financial, moral, and emotional support of their families well into their 20s. To The Mockingbird Society, extended foster care is first and foremost an issue of “normalcy” because it provides youth in the child welfare system some of the support that youth raised in families routinely receive. 

Extended foster care is also an important issue for The Mockingbird Society, which seeks to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness, because it is powerful homelessness prevention strategy. In fact, Youth Network Representative Maven, who did not have the benefit of extended foster care, became homeless after aging out of foster care. Azia, who exited extended foster care at age 21 in January of this year, commented that she choose extended care as a way to avoid homelessness, but realized that it provided her the safety and security to focus on school and set and work towards long term goals. Without this opportunity, her focus would have been on her daily needs and where she was sleeping each night. Azia added that extended foster care was critical for helping her weather family challenges that could have thrown her life into disarray. “It would have been easy to have everything fall apart without the support.  It was a buffer for the stress.” 

Current Reforms

Extended care began in Washington as a pilot program in 2006 for 50 youth who were pursuing college or vocational training. Since that time, the program has grown and become institutionalized in state law, bolstered by research clearly showing that the investment financially benefitted the state. See Extending Foster Care to 21: Measuring Costs and Benefits in Washington State.

Amendments to this law have continued to fill service gaps and expand access. The most recent reforms do three important things that make the program more responsive to the needs of young adults. First, youth can now opt into extended foster care up until age 21, rather than the current age of 19. Second, they can re-enter extended care as many times as they need. Third, youth are eligible for extended care if they are dependent even if they are placed in a juvenile justice facility, on runaway status or trial return home on their 18th birthday.  These reforms make extended foster care a true and flexible safety net that seeks to serve young people who are most in need of support and in a way that is youth/young adult friendly. 

What’s Next?

How the new law is implemented is critical to whether it will have the desired impact for young people. Getting a law passed is a crucial step, but only the first one. The Mockingbird Society and its Advocates will be front and center in implementation efforts, and will work to make sure young people are at all tables for rolling out these new reforms and developing policies that impact youth generally. They are optimistic that the creation of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which merges the Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Early Learning, will allow for new opportunities for youth engagement and advocacy and to create new patterns of including youth as the norm. 

What’s Important in Extended Foster Care?

There is a lot of wisdom to take from work of The Mockingbird Society that can benefit those working to build and improve excellent extended foster care systems. Here are three key takeaways.   

Policy Development and Implementation Must be Informed By The Lived Experiences of Youth and Their Needs  

If we truly want extended care systems to be effective, they need to be informed by the experiences of the youth they seek to serve and benefit. The data we have about national trends in extended foster care indicate that we are not taking this to scale. Many states with extended care are not seeing youth opt in in large numbers and are seeing youth who do elect to stay leave earlier than expected without clarity on whether these exits are to permanency or stability. Supporting Young People Transitioning from Foster Care: Findings from a National Survey, (finding that although foster care is almost always available in some form to youth over age 18, three quarters of states report that most young people leave foster care before the maximum age permitted.) How and what services we provide young people   must be informed by youth and young adults both in terms of what they tell us they need and our best understandings of adolescent/young adult development. Maven’s experience provides a vivid example: while eligible for extended foster care, glitches in the automated systems that processes requests for extended care and the lack of caseworker assistance resulted in a lack of access to a crucial service. If the services intended for young people are hard to access, we need re-evaluate the processes we have put in place. Hearing from young people is best way to determine gaps and identify solutions. Similarly, we know a lot about how young people behave and how their brains work in adolescence and emerging adulthood, but have done little to revamp our systems and how we interact with youth to reflect that wealth of knowledge. The Road to Adulthood: Aligning Child Welfare Practice With Adolescent Brain Development is a place to start. 

All Relationships Matter

Finding permanency and connecting youth with supportive adults is imperative to a successful transition to adulthood. We know this and youth in care know this. Our child welfare system cannot lose sight of this for youth from age 0-21, and it must become more flexible and creative in how it sees and supports permanency.  It can start by listening to youth and who they identify as important.

In addition, we cannot underestimate how important well-trained and well-supported case workers are to an excellent extended care system. The relationship that a young person has with his or her caseworker can be the difference between system engagement and aging out. Azia reported that she probably would not have stayed in care and trusted the system for three more years had it not been for her caseworker and the relationship they had developed. She credits her caseworker for making her time in extended care “intentional” and meaningful. Azia explained that her caseworker helped her develop a vision for her future and then helped her find the supports and identify the steps to help her work toward that vision. “She helped connect me to opportunities and resources that helped me grow.” When she was angry or frustrated, Azia said that her caseworker was patient and listened and helped her turn her feelings into something productive, identifying her strengths when she could not see them. It was her caseworker who introduced her to advocacy activities, seeking to help Azia build on her desire to speak out and make change in the world. Our systems must provide caseworkers the training, support, and time to develop these types of relationships. They are crucial to an effective extended care system.

We Must Urgently Prioritize The Needs Of Teens And Young Adults

We all want extended care to be of high quality and responsive to the needs of emerging adults. Most of us acknowledge that this a tall order, especially if our systems do not prepare youth for adulthood until their late teens and do not prioritize permanency. Maven said it well: “Extended foster care is like a street sweeper, being asked to deal with all the problems the system never addressed.” We need to ensure that all states have excellent extended care systems available to youth who need and want that support, but we also must focus on preparing youth for adulthood earlier as parents do for the children in their own homes, focusing on educational planning, learning and practicing skills and talents, and being connected to the community and a support system. Planning must start well before age 17; young people must be given the opportunity to practice the skills that they need to flourish in the adult world and must be supported in learning from the mistakes that they certainly will make as part of growing up. 

The title of this blog is a variation on the wise—and common sense—words of Azia. When we invest in and create excellent extended care systems we are telling and showing youth we care about what they grow up to be, we see their potential and commit to provide the support they need to achieve their goals. This is a basic commitment and one we have the power to make. Washington State, with the leadership of youth advocates, is leading the way.