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Ten evidence-based reasons for extending foster care beyond 18 years, Dr Iain Matheson

Several countries, states and provinces are considering extending foster care beyond the age of 18, and others have done so already. For folks that are still on the fence, here are my top ten reasons for extending foster care:

  1. When did you or your children leave home? And I mean REALLY leave home? A 2016 study found that the average age for children to leave home across European Union countries was 26 years of age. Figures from other western countries are similar and have been rising.

  2. Accommodation crisis: There is an accommodation crisis in most of the world’s major cities. While you or your own kids may be finding the high cost of rental accommodation a burden or struggling to buy a first home, how easy do you think it is for a care leaver under the age of 18 to secure safe and affordable accommodation?

  3. Many young people want it: Some young people are desperate to leave care at the earliest opportunity, but others would welcome the chance remain with foster carers until they felt more ready.

  4. High levels of foster carer support: Many foster carers are uncomfortable with current arrangements and also support extended foster care. While informal extended care is common in some countries, such foster carers tend to get little or no support, and such arrangements can sometimes be fragile.

  5. Other jurisdictions. While the US, UK and New Zealand have got a lot of attention for their recent extended care schemes, many other countries such as Sweden, Germany and Romania have long allowed some young people to formally remain in care beyond their 18th birthday.

  6. Continuity and stability: There is a place for early transitioning from care planning and preparation, but what young people in foster care aged 15+ need most is continuity and stability in a high quality, nurturing and purposeful placement.

  7. Education, employment and training: Those in care already have more issues to deal with than most, and on completing schooling, young people should, like everyone else, be able to focus their energies on further or higher education, training and employment – and being teenagers.

  8. Improved outcomes: Promising US and UK evidence has found that those who experienced extended care were more involved in education and less involved in the criminal justice system. Professor Mark Courtney’s US research also found that those in extended care went on to have higher earnings, delayed pregnancies and a more positive experience of transitioning from care. A new 2019 largescale US study by the independent not-for-profit Child Trends organisation found that even by age 19 extended foster care is associated with better outcomes in employment, high school diploma completion, educational aid, homelessness, and young parenthood.

  9. Financial investment? Want to know whether extended care is a good financial investment? While results are dependent on how well such a policy is implemented, the numbers that we have are certainly encouraging. See the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) work undertaken by Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2010 (with them publishing another CBA in Dec 2019), and Australian Deloitte Access Economics reports from 2016 and 2018.

  10. Poor current outcomes: Despite some improvements over recent years, current approaches are still failing far too many children in care and care leavers.

And here’s a non-evidence based reason too:

It’s just the right thing to do: If transitioning to adulthood is about ‘belonging’ and ‘connection’, why exactly would we want to deliberately disrupt a 17 year old’s settled living arrangement and relationships, create high levels of stress, and make them fend for themselves whether they were ready or not? More broadly we also have a fundamental ethical duty to ensure that those leaving care are better off, as a result of the state’s decision to intervene in their lives and take them into care, than they would otherwise have been.

Extending foster care is not a panacea and is also not for all. As schemes usually need a young person to want to stay with an existing foster carer and for that carer to want them to stay too, it may work better in jurisdictions where the quality of the foster care system is better. Also, despite the elegant simplicity of the concept, to maximise take-up and benefits extended care schemes need to be carefully and collaboratively designed. However there is growing evidence that extended foster care may be one of the best ways that we have of actually making a positive long-term difference in the lives of children and young people in foster care.

Dr Iain Matheson

Child Welfare Researcher, Trainer, Speaker, Author, and Mentor

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