Aging Out of Foster Care

Mindy Kuhl, a social worker with the St. Louis County ongoing child protection unit, joined her colleagues in Virginia last August in protesting for more staffing to help keep kids safe. Workers will gather again at the state Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 24 to push for funding.
Mindy Kuhl, a social worker with the St. Louis County ongoing child protection unit, joined her colleagues in Virginia last August in protesting for more staffing to help keep kids safe. Workers will gather again at the state Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 24 to push for funding.

When young adults have a problem like car trouble or falling short on rent, most have family they can turn to for help. But imagine finishing high school, going off to college or starting your first job without any of that emotional or financial support.

That’s the reality for about 20,000 kids in foster care in the U.S. each year who become too old to receive services - known as aging out, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In Minnesota, our child protection workers provide services to those young adults until they’re 21. But surging caseloads and a shortage of foster homes is creating a crisis for these workers and the teenagers they supervise. These workers will flock to our state Capitol Jan. 24 and ask legislators to help keep kids safe by providing funding to help counties hire and retain child protection workers.

“I’m supposed to have 10 to 15 cases, but I’ve been sitting at 23 to 26 cases,” says Mindy Kuhl, a social worker with the St. Louis County ongoing child protection unit. “We’re all stretched thin.”

Kuhl and others who work with kids in long-term foster care face the same problems other child protection workers do. New screening guidelines intended to keep more kids safe have had unintended consequences: More low-risk cases are flooding in, inflating workers’ caseloads and causing the demand for shelters and foster homes to go up.

 “We’re at a record number of out-of-home placements for kids,” Kuhl says. “That’s not just St. Louis County. That’s the whole state. It’s a trend. We keep recruiting new foster homes but as soon as we get them, we fill them. My teens, they have to go really far away just to find a placement.”

Increasing levels of parental opioid addiction are making the crisis even worse.

“There’s a lot of people overdosing on heroin,” Kuhl says. “Meth use is off the charts. We’re battling all sorts of addiction. It’s difficult to have kids in the home if the parents’ chemical use is unstable.”

Kids who are living with an abusive or neglectful parent are usually at greater risk of immediate harm than children in foster care: They can face trauma including neglect, physical or sexual abuse, parental addiction or a parent going to prison.

“We have limited resources, so those often go to the most vulnerable, whether it’s by age or disability or situation,” says AFSCME Local 66 president Dennis Frazier, who’s a child protection social worker. “We get overwhelmed by the crisis, and getting a kid who’s older to a better place is not a crisis. It creates a crisis later because they’re underemployed and ill-prepared for the world.”

Frazier, who works in initial intervention doing assessments and investigations, says he moved away from the long-term work Kuhl does because of shrinking resources: “We really screw up our end game in working with kids who can’t be with their natural families.”

The kids who age out of foster care because they can’t safely return to a parent or relative, and aren’t adopted, may have lived at more than one foster home and had a difficult relationship with their foster parents, so there’s no contact after they leave.

“I just can’t imagine becoming an adult in long-term care,” Kuhl says. “I ask kids, if you’re 18, where would you go for Thanksgiving? They’re so far removed from their biological family and have never really connected to a foster family. I understand why those kids just leave because there’s nothing to really hold onto.”

Workers like Kuhl try to fill that gap. Once young people leave foster care, they can receive the money their foster families did until they turn 21. That amounts to about $800 a month. They also get health insurance. Kuhl and her colleagues hook them up with services like therapy and help them develop plans to move from foster care into independent adulthood.

“A lot of our kids unfortunately end up in very bad situations and don’t transition into adulthood successfully,” she says. “They’re in foster care and feel different, and they’re trying to belong so they’re drawn to whoever will accept them, which unfortunately tends to be the wrong crowd.”

The statistics for young adults who have been in foster care are sobering. According to studies by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and the Chapin Hall Center for Children:

  • More than one in five experienced homelessness after age 18.
  • More than 75 percent of the women had been pregnant by age 21.
  • One in four became involved in the criminal justice system within two years of leaving foster care.
  • They were three times more likely not to have a diploma or GED, and one-fifth as likely to have a college degree as other young adults.
  • Less than half were employed.

To improve these outcomes, workers across Minnesota continue to protest and to lobby lawmakers at the county and state level. They want reduced caseloads so they can spend more time with clients.

They’d like to see more community services for young adults, too. Kuhl says there’s a real shortage of programs for those aging out of foster care, especially where she works in the Iron Range; many services cut off at 18 or younger, and those that don’t are too often full.

“It would be nice to have more mentoring programs specifically for teens, something they can rely on when they really need someone, someone to model and do the after-hours stuff,” she says. “As a social worker I have to keep my boundaries up as much as I can. What these kids needs is more support with people to rely on for help.”