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Study: Innovative support program gives boost to kids leaving foster care

ASU professor finds that young adults in a Nevada payment program fared better than 2001 cohort

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August 31, 2023

An Arizona State University professor has shown how a small change in policy can have a hugely positive effect on the lives of vulnerable people.

In 2001, Thom Reilly surveyed 100 youths who were leaving the foster care system in Clark County, Nevada, and the results were not good. The young adults reported high rates of homelessness and interaction with the criminal justice system since they left foster care to face the world on their own.

“The outcomes were pretty appalling, but probably reflective at the time across the U.S. of outcomes for these young people,” said Reilly, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.

In 2016, Clark County started an innovative new program called Step-Up for young people leaving foster care. They would receive direct payments of about $1,000 a month, until they reached 21, to live independently while still having access to support services like social workers and housing stipends.

Was the program effective? Reilly’s work from 2001 gave him the perfect opportunity to find out.

In 2021, he gave the same survey to 114 young people leaving foster care in the Step-Up program. The results showed that this group fared much better compared to the 2001 group: more financial security, less involvement with law enforcement, better educational outcomes, fewer job terminations, less homelessness, fewer pregnancies and children — and 100% of them had health insurance.

“This cohort of individuals were faring significantly better in life because they had some support,” said Reilly, whose research was published recently in the Focus on Poverty Journal and the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. His co-author was David Schlinkert, director of monitoring, evaluation, research and learning for the supply chain management program in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“They weren’t just shoved out the door at age 18 and expected to navigate life and be OK.”

The results would appear to show that the Step-Up program was successful, but Reilly said the challenge to widespread policy change is funding. The federal government reimburses states for 50% of the cost of children in foster care. A few years ago, the U.S. incentivized states to allow young people to stay in foster care past the age of 18, up to age 21, or, in some cases, 23. About half the states, including Arizona, offer that option.

“Extending the age is a great step forward, especially with getting money to the state to provide independent living services,” said Reilly, who is co-director of the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at ASU.

But only half the eligible youths in Clark County took advantage of it.

“The crux of it is that their time in foster care has not been a pleasant experience,” Reilly said.

“Most of them will not choose to stay, and even if they stay, they will not view it as a positive experience. Many have had multiple foster placements. A significant number have experienced abuse in care.”

And yet this group of young people are often unprepared to navigate responsibilities like finding an apartment or acquiring health insurance upon leaving foster care at age 18 without any support.

“What so many of these young people struggle with is never coming to terms with why they were placed in care – why their parents gave them up,” said Reilly, who started his career as a social worker and is a former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

“Many continuously search for parents who, in their mind, are better than they thought and reconcile how they could have left them.

“This leaves them vulnerable to victimization while searching for housing, jobs, relationships, etc.”

That’s why the Step-Up program, which took the monthly stipend that would be given to a foster parent and instead gave it directly to the young person, was considered innovative.

The older teens in Step-Up, who were still wards of the court, received about $1,000 a month and could access housing assistance, transportation, educational opportunities and case-management services.

While the federal government reimburses states 50% of the cost of foster care, it does not reimburse for direct-payment independent-living programs like Step-Up. Clark County paid for the program itself.

“I think you would find consensus among people from all political backgrounds that if you remove a kid from the parents, the state has a responsibility to help the kid out,” Reilly said.

“There’s no argument that there’s a safety net that the state should provide to these people.”

Even though the survey showed that the 2021 group fared better, they still had some vulnerabilities. None of the young adults were homeless at the time they were interviewed in 2021, but 27% reported at least one instance of having nowhere to live since leaving foster care.

Also, only 25% of the 2021 group reported receiving training in independent living skills, although that was attributed to the pandemic.

“The explanation was that the kids were burned out on Zoom. They had to go to school on Zoom and they weren’t about to go to independent living skill training on Zoom,” Reilly said.

Another difference between the two studies was that the 2021 cohort was much easier to track down.

“The first time, locating the young people was extremely challenging because we didn’t have a computerized system. I had six students that tracked them down, putting up flyers at coffee shops, calling foster parents and relatives and even going to interview them in prison,” Reilly said.

“Now the federal government requires states to do follow-up studies so they have to collect the information and know where they’re at.”

Reilly said if the federal government would help to cover the cost of direct-payment programs like Step-Up, it would pay for itself down the road.

“If these young people come back into the system, you pay in other ways, like involvement with the criminal justice system or pregnancies — that’s been quantified in other places.

“In the long run, society would be much better off.”

Top image courtesy iStock