Every year in Ohio, about 1,000 children age out of foster care when they turn 18, subjecting themselves to higher risks of unemployment, homelessness and human trafficking. According to a 2008 Youthwork Information Brief, 22 percent of youths who have aged out of the system are homeless, 33 percent live in poverty and almost 85 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED.
To help decrease these statistics, Ohio Fostering Connections, a coalition of organizations and government officials, is working to raise Ohio’s foster care age to 21.
According to Mark Mecum, Executive Director for the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, raising the age from 18 to 21 has a positive impact on the lives of aging foster care children.
“(Children who have aged out of foster care) are less likely to experience homelessness,” Mecum said. “They’re less likely to be arrested; to have unplanned pregnancies. They’re more likely to pursue higher education and, therefore, they’re more likely to have better paying jobs.
“There’s a significant amount of research already that suggests that extending foster care to age 21 significantly improves the outcome for these children.”
These studies show that raising the foster care age to 21 doubles the rate at which foster children receive college degrees — from 10.2 percent to 20.4 percent — and decreases societal costs as more women decide to delay pregnancy.
Another benefit to raising the foster care age is that Ohio counties, which may otherwise struggle to provide support for people over the age of 18, can tap into the federal funds provided to states that increase the age to 21.
“If counties don’t have a lot of funding to support these kids, many of the kids realize that there isn’t much support there and they don’t seek that support,” Mecum said. “By extending the foster care age to 21, the agencies will access millions of federal dollars to support these kids, such as setting them up in apartments, helping them attend college and live in college dorms, or even supporting them to live in a foster home for a few more months or a couple more years before they are ready to live on their own.”
Although most of the cost for increasing the foster care age would fall on the federal government, Ohio would have to pick up about one-third of the tab, Mecum said. To find out more about the financial impact this policy would have on the state, Ohio Fostering Connections is teaming up with Ohio State University to conduct a research study and hopes the results will show a long-term payoff for the state.
In addition to the research study and the information from other states, the organization is also planning events around Ohio to learn more about foster care from local areas.
“Ohio is a unique state and we have a lot to learn from people from cities and counties throughout Ohio,” Mecum said. “We’re hopeful that we can build the best program possible for these kids by tapping the knowledge base within our state.”