At the age of 18, foster children can voluntarily consent to stay in the care of the Department of Children and Families. However, in order to receive services from the agency till the age of 21 (and sometimes 23), these youth must be enrolled in a post-secondary educational program, work, or job training program.
In her opinion editorial, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said that the department struggles with youth who “reject the rules of work, school, and job training and leave state care” at the age of 18.
As someone who has experienced the foster care system, I fully reject the notion that adolescent foster children reject the services of the Department of Children and Families simply because they are not willing to follow rules. Rather, I posit that many of these young adults decline to continue receiving services from a system that many of them view as oppressive because they are desperate for freedom and family.
Although there are many caring adults that may touch the lives of a foster child, there are many more who make it clear that the child is a burden or is simply being helped in exchange for a paycheck. I know from experience that many foster youth are desperate to create their own families and find their purpose in the world, leaving them unable to rationally understand the value of staying in the foster care system that they dislike.
Additionally, many foster youth are simply unprepared to successfully participate in the classroom or the workplace. As a result of the circumstances that commit a child to the custody of DCF, many foster children experience significant barriers to success such as emotional disturbances or learning disabilities. It is unfair to deny these children vital resources simply because they cannot meet the demands of a world they are completely unprepared for.
Like children who grow up outside of the foster care system, adolescent foster youth may struggle with following rules in a time when they are experiencing increased freedom and responsibility. However, foster children lack the familial safety net that is offered to their peers.
When foster children sign themselves out of DCF custody, they often realize that the responsibilities of adulthood are far more than they expected, and immediately wish to return to the agency that served as their legal parents.
In order to return to DCF care, foster youth must figure out how to apply to reenter the agency and figure out how to meet DCF’s requirement that young adults who return to care enroll in a post-secondary education or job-training program.
While Commissioner Katz frustrations of the rebellious foster youth is similar to that of any other parental figure, few parents would ask their child to fill out a form and get into a job training program before moving back in if he or she was at risk of becoming homeless.
DCF should not chastise children for choosing to opt out of care unless the agency chooses to opt in to the services that will allow them to better care for transitioning foster children. There are a number of logical and available policy remedies that the Department of Children and Families can and should adopt to better support youth transitioning from foster care.
For example, under a federal law called the Fostering Connections Act, the Department of Children and Families can continue to provide services to nearly all foster youth until the age of 21, including those who are unable to maintain a place on a college campus or in the workforce. The federal government will cover half of the costs for the housing of these youth; a much better deal for Connecticut than if youth quickly end up in supportive housing (as many do) and the State must foot the whole bill.
Other states have also taken unique steps to better care for the youth who have signed out of the system but want to re-enter after failing to succeed in the real world. For example, New York provides a grace period after discharge so that foster youth can easily re-enter care if they are in need of services.
Connecticut should look at innovative solutions, such as allowing more youth to remain in care and adopting the “trial discharge” model, in order to more realistically meet the needs of the youth they are charged with caring for — and to make good on its promise as statutory parent to adequately prepare the youth in its care for adulthood.
Lexie Gruber is a senior political science major at Quinnipiac University and formerly worked on child welfare policy on Capitol Hill.