The Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) new CHEER program – which will permit certain youth who turn 18 in foster care to remain in the agency’s care if they are employed and otherwise productively engaged (e.g., receiving therapy, taking classes) for a total of 40 hours per week – is an important positive step toward improving outcomes for these vulnerable young people.

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Historically, youth who turn 18 in foster care have been discharged from DCF care unless they enroll in a post-secondary education program. However, children in foster care often struggle in school, and are typically unprepared for college upon turning 18.

In 2013, 71 percent of youth discharged at 18 or older had no post-secondary education experience. Those young people who do not enroll in post-secondary education often face a bleak future. They typically leave the care of DCF with little family to turn to for support, and most are unemployed at the time of discharge.

As part of our work at the advocacy organization Connecticut Voices for Children, we have partnered regularly with the young adults who sit on DCF’s Youth Advisory Board to learn about their experiences and suggestions for policy change. A major priority of these young people has been promoting increased flexibility for youth transitioning to adulthood.

These youth have spoken about their desire for more transitional support at Connecticut Voices’ Success Beyond 18 conference, and reiterated their beliefs during quarterly meetings with DCF’s Commissioner.  By choosing to offer greater flexibility to youth who remain in care, and providing structured and supportive work experiences and subsidized housing, DCF shows that they are listening to the voices of the youth in its care, and are appropriately meeting these young people where they are.

While CHEER is undoubtedly a positive step, Connecticut can still do better. Since the passage of the federal Fostering Connections Act of 2008, the federal government will foot half the bill for the housing costs of most youth 18 to 21 remaining in foster care. The CHEER program will utilize these funds for the select group of youth it will serve.

However, the federal government actually offers states even greater flexibility – in addition to youth working or in school, it will reimburse states for half the cost of keeping youth in foster care to 21 if they suffer from a medical condition that precludes education or employment. Unfortunately, many foster care alumni fall into this category, with high rates of physical and developmental disabilities and mental health diagnoses.

Right now, DCF typically tries to transfer these young people to the care of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), or the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). These departments receive none of the federal reimbursement Connecticut would be eligible for if youth remained in foster care. These transitions are also fraught with challenges, and many young people end up homeless and without treatment.

If Connecticut were to permit these particularly challenged young people to remain in DCF care to 21, they could still be served by DMAHS too, but half the cost of their housing would be borne by the feds. More importantly, youth would have more time to develop maturity, maintain their relationship with their social worker, and hopefully find a permanent family.

Since these young people are at such high risk for costly negative life outcomes – including homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration – Connecticut can save money by paying less to do the right thing now, with federal support, rather than paying more to do the wrong thing later, with no federal money.

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As statutory parent, DCF should do for the children in its care what any parent would do for a challenged child – take advantage of available federal funding to better support all the young people who turn 18 in its care, not just those who are ready and healthy enough for school and work.

Edie Joseph is a Policy Fellow and Kenneth Feder is a Policy Analyst at Connecticut Voices for Children.

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