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News / Northwest

Extended foster care for young adults up to 21 set to expand in WA

A bill awaiting the governor’s signature will make requirements less strict for the program, which helps foster youth transition to adulthood.

By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard
Published: March 25, 2024, 6:00am

When Daniel Lugo left extended foster care and graduated college, he lost financial support from the state and entered homelessness. Like many college graduates, he didn’t have a job lined up. For Lugo, that meant he was applying for jobs while living in his car.

Lugo eventually found a job as a legislative assistant and stable housing. A decade later, he is now working as a policy and government relations manager at Treehouse, a Washington nonprofit serving foster care youth. Lugo attributes much of his success to extended foster care.

“The fact that I was in extended foster care from 18 to 21 — that gave me the skills that I needed, so that once I aged out of care and had to navigate homelessness, I could do it successfully,” Lugo said.

Extended foster care is a voluntary program in Washington available to certain foster care youth ages 18-21 who are no longer eligible for the usual foster care program. The program is aimed at making sure young people in foster care have the skills to enter independent adulthood.

Currently, foster care youth about to age out of the system must meet certain federal requirements to qualify for extended foster care, including high school enrollment, intent to pursue further education or employment over a certain period of time.

But Washington lawmakers want to lower the barriers to accessing extended foster care by removing those federal requirements. Senate Bill 5908, which does that, passed both legislative chambers. It is now awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature to become law.

In June 2022, 858 young adults were enrolled in extended foster care. If Inslee signs SB 5908 into law, roughly 200 more will be eligible for the program. Lugo said SB 5908 will ensure every youth in foster care will have access to the types of support services that led him to where he is today.

“EFC gives people the space they need to develop as people,” Lugo said.

Foster care outcomes

From 2016 to 2021, 20% of Washington’s foster care youth who age out of the system experienced homelessness within a year of leaving, according to the Department of Children, Youth and Families. 

“There’s like this razor-thin line between being able just to meet your daily basic needs and entering crisis,” said Fred Kingston, director of policy at Treehouse.

Research suggests extended foster care improves those outcomes. In 2020, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy compared extended foster care participants and non-participants on a range of outcomes.

The institute found participation in the program significantly reduced homelessness, use of public assistance and use of medical emergency departments.

Youth who participated in extended foster care were also more likely to be employed and have greater earnings. They were less likely to have a substance-use disorder, a criminal conviction or a child involved in the child welfare system.

“No one program is going to change these outcomes at the population scale,” Kingston said. “But what we do believe is that this comprehensive service array, which includes — but it’s not limited to — extended foster care, is what’s really going to give young people a better chance.”

Research shows long-term relationships with adult role models improve outcomes for young people, said Emiko Tajima, a professor at the University of Washington who studies child welfare. Extended foster care gives young people the chance to continue and expand connections with adults, like through caseworker relationships, legal counselors and peer support in the program.

“So much of their experience in the welfare system has separated them from important connections,” Tajima said, pointing to how the foster care system moves foster kids around frequently.

“[Extended foster care] just keeps them connected to those possible supports. It’s not a guarantee, but at least it gives them kind of this chance of having those connections,” Tajima said.

Lugo’s experience with extended foster care, for example, gave him access to a college tour at the University of Washington, connected him with an academic advisor who helped him appeal his initial rejection, and provided a weekly therapist to help him work through traumas he’s experienced.

‘Our job as a state’

Extended foster care began in 2006 with a small pilot program authorized by the Washington Legislature. It was the first of its kind in the country, Kingston said. The full program launched in 2012. Now, with the help of federal funding, nearly every state in the country has an extended foster care program, according to a University of Washington report. 

Kingston, who’s worked on extended foster care since 2011, said the goal was always to provide universal access. The eligibility requirements, Kingston said, were needed to convince the federal government to fund the program.

“We are solving for problems we created,” Kingston said about SB 5908.

Under SB 5908, the state will foot the bill for any foster care youth who don’t meet federal eligibility requirements, which is estimated to cost just under $900,000 in the next five years — although studies suggest that extended foster care actually saves states money in the long run. 

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Kingston said the legislation was a “beautiful example” of advocacy from people who had lived through foster care. Kingston said that young adults telling their stories helped legislators understand their responsibilities to the youth aging out of foster care.

This is reflected in how legislators talk about the program. Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, lead sponsor of SB 5908, said it’s “our job as a state to help raise these young people.”

Ésminà James-Secret, 19, told lawmakers at a committee hearing that the bill would have made their entire transition to adulthood much easier.

“The system has not been built to protect young people like me,” James-Secret said. “Trying to heal from trauma while also wondering if I will sleep on the streets is the biggest problem that I had faced.”

During committee hearings, some social workers expressed apprehension about removing eligibility requirements, arguing that it would eliminate an incentive for foster care youth to pursue education or employment.

But advocates and experts say failure is part of being a young adult, and removing barriers to the program will help youth who need support the most.

“So often, there’s this narrative about independence and preparing young people for independence. As though when you become an adult, somehow you’re supposed to be completely independent,” Tajima said.

“We’re all dependent in different ways, and we all have relationships and connections and need support,” she said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.