Final Wave of CalYOUTH Study Surveys Former Foster Youth at Age 23

The CalYOUTH Study provides the most comprehensive view to date of young people approaching the transition to adulthood from foster care in the wake of the federal Fostering Connections Act. This Act extended the age of Title IV-E eligibility from 18 to 21 for foster care youth. CalYOUTH focuses on the state of California, an early adopter of the new policy that also has the largest foster care population in the U.S. The study addresses whether extending foster care past age 18 influenced youths’ outcomes during the transition to adulthood, what factors influence the types of support youth receive during the transition to adulthood in the context of extended foster care; and how living arrangements and other services that result from extending foster care influence the relationship between extending care and youth outcomes. CalYOUTH includes collection and analysis of information from three sources: (1) transition-age youth, (2) child welfare workers, and (3) government program data.

What We Did

For Wave 4 of the CalYOUTH Study, researchers surveyed 622 23-year-olds. This study follows up on surveys of the same young people when they were approaching the age of majority in California’s foster care system at age 17 and again when they were 19 and 21 years old. Similar to the previous interview waves, the study collected data on a wide range of youth outcomes in in areas such as physical and mental health, education and employment, and relationships and families.

What We Found

Wave 4 findings provide a rich description of how study participants are faring at age 23, when they have all been out of foster care for at least 2 years. Years after leaving care, most of these young adults look back favorably on their experience of care. It is important to acknowledge that despite the help they received from the foster care system, on average these young people are faring poorly compared to their age peers across many measures of well-being, including their educational attainment, employment, economic self-sufficiency, physical and mental health, and involvement with the criminal justice system. Our findings suggest that gender, race, and ethnicity condition these youths’ experiences, as they do for all young people in America. Finally, our findings also highlight the amazing resilience and enormous potential of young people transitioning to adulthood from foster care. Despite the histories of trauma that accompanied them into foster care and the challenges many of them faced since then, the CalYOUTH participants as a whole have much going for them.

What It Means

The consistency with which these youth express their appreciation for the help they received during their time in foster care should provide encouragement for the investments that government, the philanthropic sector, and the caring individuals who work in and with the public child welfare system have made in supporting the transition to adulthood for youth in foster care. The relatively poor average outcomes should not be simply attributed to their time in foster care, since they generally came into care from marginalized communities where many young people struggle during the transition to adulthood. In addition, these youth had often suffered long histories of trauma prior to entering care. Nevertheless, our findings indicate that more work can and should be done to improve supports for them during the transition to adulthood. In particular, our findings raise questions about the wisdom of abruptly curtailing services for these young people when they reach their 21st birthday. Our findings suggest that when COVID-19 is behind us, it will still be the case that many young adults in care could potentially benefit from ongoing support past their 21st birthday.

Recommended Citation
Courtney, M. E., Okpych, N. J., Harty, J. S., Feng. H, Park, S., Powers, J., Nadon, M., Ditto, D. J., & Park, K. (2020). Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH): Conditions of youth at age 23. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.