On September 30, Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 12 into law. AB 12 is an extraordinary step forward in helping older foster youth in California, especially given the budget problems the state is currently experiencing. Implemented in phases, AB 12 will eventually allow foster youth to remain in care until age 21. AB 12 is possible due to the Federal Fostering Connections to Success Act of 2008, which will provide federal matching funds for youth in foster care to age 21.
To understand the importance of AB 12, it is important to first understand the position of foster youth in California. Many experts consider a young person have attained self sufficiency around age 26, after completing college, starting a career, and / or having a family. However, until the passage of AB 12 foster youth in California were expected to survive on their own 8 years earlier, at age 18. The results have been devastating: foster youth are vastly over-represented in the homeless population — with one in four becoming homeless for some period within 13 months of aging out of the system. Though the majority of foster youth aspire to obtain a college degree, only 3% of them ever graduate from a four-year university. Foster youth experience mental illness at rates much higher than their peers with no history of foster care; they also experience higher rates of unemployment than their peers, and those who are employed earn substantially less than their peers. AB 12 will help many older foster youth avoid these negative outcomes — or at least postpone them for a few years.
There is a tendency toward the perception that once a major piece of legislation like AB 12 passes, the problem is solved and the state should move on to other issues. The passage of AB 12 must not be the end of California's efforts to improve the lives of our foster youth. The legislation alone will not improve outcomes for these youth. Without proper implementation, the bill may serve only to delay the negative outcomes foster youth now experience after age 18. California needs to work to ensure that AB 12 lives up to its promise; in addition, California must continue to innovate and work toward helping the foster youth entrusted to its care.
First, AB 12 authorizes two new placement types for youth over age 18 — THP-Plus foster care and the supervised independent living placement. Both the federal Fostering Connections Act and the California's AB 12 recognize that youth over age 18 need age-appropriate options for placement. California must ensure that any placement types for foster youth over age 18 are age-appropriate, individualized, and do not place overly burdensome requirements on the youth, many of whom are attending college or trade school, or starting their careers. This must be considered as the implementing rules are drafted and as the youth begin to utilize the placements. Simply expanding the group home model currently in place for youth under the age of 18 will not work for young adults post age 18.
Second, California must continue to look for innovative approaches to assist older foster youth as they approach independence. The state must consider options for youth who may not want to remain “in the system” and for those who may need extra assistance, such as those who are parenting, experiencing mental health issues or emotional difficulties, and those who are experiencing trouble with school. California counties should consider utilizing funding from Proposition 63 (the Mental Health Services Act) or other sources to supplement funding from AB 12 to provide the most beneficial assistance possible to older foster youth. California counties should also consider implementing innovative programs like the Transition Life Coach as alternatives or supplements to AB 12.
Third, California must continue to educate social workers, dependency attorneys and others who work with older foster youth. These professionals must be aware of all the resources available to older foster youth both to prepare them before they leave the system and to assist them after they leave the system. Many former foster youth do not know how to go back to the system to receive assistance or obtain documentation relating to their history upon leaving foster care. Even with extended availability of assistance from foster care, every foster youth must have a practical understanding regarding resources and procedures for accessing services and information, upon leaving foster care. This is best accomplished by ensuring that those who work most closely with the youth are aware of resources and procedures.
Finally, the legislature and the governor need to make foster youth a priority in the budget. These are the state’s own children. California has taken parental responsibility for these children. While AB 12 was an acknowledgement of California’s responsibility to its own children, the groundbreaking legislation was followed by an $80 million cut to child welfare services. California’s own children will not succeed if the state’s budget continues to treat them as an afterthought, a source from which to cut money to avoid closing corporate tax loopholes.
California advocates and law makers should be commended for the passage of AB 12. It is an extraordinary piece of legislation with the potential to vastly improve the lives of California’s foster youth. Now they must continue the momentum, implement AB 12 in a way that most benefits older foster youth and continue to look for innovative approaches to ensure a successful transition to adulthood for California's own children.
Staff Attorney, CAI