Locking Up Foster Children Is Not the Answer, But It Speaks Volumes About the Problem

Kevin M. Ryan
Dec 7, 2018 · 5 min read
photo by Manuel Faisco

Yesterday’s news troubled me deeply — The New York Times reported that the city’s welfare system secures arrest warrants for foster children who may have run away from their placements. In one highlighted case, the child was living with her mother out of state, but was arrested and taken back to New York in handcuffs and leg irons. In another case, the agency secured an arrest warrant for a girl who had left her foster home, even though she was showing up daily for her internship — with the child welfare agency that had her arrested. The warrant was later vacated.

Last year the agency obtained warrants for 69 children, potentially leaving them with records that will make it even harder for them to find jobs in the future. In no other state are such warrants issued. Many kids run from foster care when they don’t find the stability, protection and unconditional love of a family. Their running away is a red flag that the system isn’t working for them, not an invitation to arrest and detain them. New York City should stop arresting foster children when they run.

A comprehensive study of older youth in foster care released last month shows that half of them leaving foster care do so without families to care for them. Youth ages 14 and older who exit foster care are far too likely to become unemployed and/or homeless as adults. The data, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, paints a picture of heartbreak on a national scale, but also points to possible solutions.

One of the worst possible outcomes for teenagers and young adults is to age out of foster care without a permanent family — not reunited with their birth families, or adopted by their foster families, relatives, or strangers. Most are forced to fend for themselves, at age 18 or 21 depending on state law. But how many people that age are able to find living wage work, afford housing, food, and other necessities?

Few middle-class college students from stable homes could master those skills suddenly. How can we expect such independence from kids who, like half the study participants, were sent to three or more different foster placements? Such upheaval and chaos often prevent them from developing trusting relationships and making progress in school. Most of them know love and stability in strobe flashes, and many struggle to live safely and independently.

Finding families for older youth in care whose parents’ rights have been terminated is among the most complex, and essential, responsibilities of government. I know from leading the child welfare system in New Jersey it is possible to find permanent homes for foster children who have been waiting the longest. Of our 100 longest-waiting youth, we placed more than half in forever families within 20 months from the commencement of our special initiative. Teenagers who had waited as long as twelve years were finally connected with permanent families, including in some instances extended birth relatives.

In St. Louis, a program called Extreme Recruitment has used retired detectives and child-welfare workers to locate dozens of relatives for young people stuck in foster care, finding permanent homes for 70 percent of them, compared to 40 percent under standard procedures. How hard we work, how robustly we invest, and how much we expect, to achieve permanency for the longest waiting older youth will foretell our success.

We at Covenant House see the casualties of struggling child welfare systems firsthand. Fully a third of the young people we serve across the United States and Canada annually have spent time in the child welfare system, and in some cities like Los Angeles the percentage is much higher. That directly reflects the Casey Foundation’s findings — 30 percent of 19- and 21-year-olds who had been in foster care reported experiencing homelessness.

In Washington, DC, 45 percent of the older foster children in the Casey study had become parents by age 21, compared to 31 percent nationally. In Michigan, according to the report, only 59 percent of 21-year-olds who had been in foster care had achieved stable housing, compared to 70 percent nationally. Only 1 percent of the older youth in California received help for room and board, compared to 19 percent nationally, according to the study. And separate research unveiled last month reveals in Los Angeles, 85 percent of the youth picked up by law enforcement in sex trafficking raids have a history with child protective services.

We will never end youth homelessness until we fix the child welfare system for older youth. That is not a view shared by all housing advocates, and is often described as an ancillary benefit of child welfare reform by children’s advocates, but it is a fact nonetheless. Until we meaningfully disrupt the child-welfare-to-homelessness pipeline, our progress ending youth homelessness in North America will remain shy of its potential, and adolescents will continue to suffer.

As Tina Kelley and I wrote in Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, where we told the stories of six youth who faced homelessness in North America, a core strategy to ending homelessness is extending foster care to age 21 in every state, and to ensure that youth exit care with support, stability and safe, sustainable shelter. New research from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago shows that an additional year in extended foster care for older youth significantly increases the probability they will complete high school, enroll in college and maintain a job, and decreases the odds that they will become homeless between the ages of 17 and 21 by a whopping 28 percent.

As of now, only about half the states allow foster children to remain in care for up to three years after their 18th birthday. As a result, too many teenagers exit foster care and face homelessness, poverty, hunger and exploitation quickly. These problems are not new and, of course, homelessness is not new. What’s new is we know how to fight it. From 2008 to 2016, the United States reduced the number of unsheltered veterans from 30,000 to 13,000 by investing in housing and focusing on veterans. We can do the same for children and families. We can fix this: it is simply a matter of our values and priorities.

Kevin M. Ryan

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Kevin Ryan is the President and CEO of Covenant House International, the largest charity in North & Central America helping young people facing homelessness.