Wednesday, May 22, 2024

WA lawmakers eye expanding foster care to 18 to 21-year olds

by Renee Diaz, Editorial Intern
| January 16, 2024 6:02 PM

OLYMPIA — A legislative proposal has the potential to create a smoother transition into adulthood for teenagers and adults aging out of the foster care system. 

 “It’s not a young person’s fault if they’re struggling past their eighteenth birthday because of the trauma and difficulties associated with the foster care system. Senate Bill 5208 will give the tool to our struggling youth, what they need to be successful once they are independent adults,” said Daniel Lugo, the Manager of Policy and Government Relations of Treehouse, at the hearing. 

Treehouse and members of the Mockingbird Society nonprofits dedicated to supporting the academic and essential needs of youth in foster care in Washington testified in support of the bill. They said the legislation could serve as a safety net, addressing concerns that existing requirements create barriers to obtaining necessary resources. 

According to a study by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services approximately one in four people experienced homelessness after aging out of foster care. Washington lawmakers aim to mitigate the risk of unstable housing for these individuals, redirecting their focus toward securing a path to education or employment. 

Senate Bill 5908 introduces changes to the eligibility requirements for youth, removing the necessity to meet federal criteria for benefits beyond the age of 18, and extending the support until the age of 21. 

This proposal is part of a slate of bills concerning the welfare of human services during the 60-day short session. Sen. Claire Wilson. D-Aurburn, chair of the Human Services Committee and the bill’s sponsor, believes the state will be able to ease the transition to independent living. 

“I believe that when we have young people in foster care and child welfare, it’s our job as a state to help raise these young people, and that’s until they can be successful on their own,” Wilson said during a Jan. 9 hearing. 

The Extended Foster Care program currently housed within the Department of Children, Youth and Families, allows young adults to extend their foster care services during the critical transition into adulthood. 

To enroll in the program, foster youth must choose to participate on their 18th birthday. Current federal eligibility requirements include being dependent and enrolled in high school, showing intent to enroll in post-secondary academic programs, participating in employment-promoting initiatives, working 80 hours or more per month, or being unable to meet these requirements due to a medical condition.

Some services for the program include referrals to community resources, transitional living services, dental, medical, mental health,, foster care placement or supervised independent living setting placement such as in a shared living apartment or a college dorm. 

Foster youth can face significant challenges in accessing support programs, particularly when they surpass the deadline of their eighteenth birthday. 

With the new changes to the program, foster youth can withdraw or opt-in to the program, if it is signed into law. The court is required to maintain the dependency status of the youth until they turn twenty-one or they withdraw from the program. 

Another study by the department concluded when foster youth have stable housing they are more likely to continue to a path of postsecondary education.

The proposed legislation aims to lower the risk of foster youth falling into homelessness through a supervised living subsidy. The pension will strictly go towards living expenses and housing. 

For the subsidy to match the local living cost, it will be determined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. They will estimate the cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the area where the individual wants to live and take off one-third of the money for living expenses to calculate the housing subsidy. 

Concerns expressed by proponents of the bill include the fact that  20% of youth did not participate in the Extended Foster Care program in 2023.

To reduce that percentage lawmakers require the DCYF to inform dependent youth ages 15 and older about the ECF program and cannot introduce additional eligibility requirements.

An additional concern regarding this legislation is the effectiveness of the Extended Foster Care Program in adequately supporting its youth. Placement agencies are frequently assigned the responsibility of instructing foster youth in fundamental life skills, including tasks such as managing finances, job applications, and accessing available resources. 

“Not all children have the life skills to manage their money or utilize services on their own. Not every child has an agency to work with. DCYF needs to do more than provide money and teach these kids how to actually live on their own,'' said Amanda Catashion, program manager of Foster First, a nonprofit child placement agency that serves foster kids in Yakima County. 

Foster First currently provides behavior rehabilitation services to safely increase the child’s behavioral school and placement stability. In 2023 they served 48 youth statewide.  

Catashion shares that the requirements for the program are a good thing, and shows that the foster youth are able to manage greater responsibilities on their own.

In a conversation with Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, a member of the Senate Human Services Committee, she expressed her desire to provide support for foster youth this session. Her focus is on the potential of this bill to prevent children from entering the juvenile system and for DCYF to continue to work with dependent youth. 

“The new changes must require DCYF to continue working with dependent youth. It is unfortunate these days, foster youth are out of a home when they turn 18. Generally, I want to be supportive of them now rather than taking care of them in the juvenile system. Whether I am going to vote yes or no will depend on what amendments are offered.” 

Joint bill, HB 2218, the House’s version of the bill, sponsored by Julio Cortes, D-Everett, is waiting for its first public hearing. 

If the bill gets approved, it’ll become active ninety days after the session ends. Right now, the bill is scheduled for an executive session in the Senate Committee on Human Services at 8 a.m. Jan. 18.