Youth in Foster Care, Juvenile Justice Systems Struggle After Age 18, Report Finds

Youth in foster care and on probation in Los Angeles County are faring poorly under the current system and face severe challenges in education, employment, health, mental health, and earnings potential, a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation finds.

Led by Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, the study, Young Adult Outcomes of Youth Exiting Dependent or Delinquent Care in Los Angeles County (125 pages, PDF), examined youth in foster care or on probation in L.A. County in 2002 or 2004 and linked them to records of public service usage from 2005 to 2009 across seven county departments and two state agencies. The report found that "crossover" youth — those who were involved in both the foster care and juvenile justice systems — averaged almost three times the per-person cost in terms of public service dollars as youth only in foster care. According to the foundation, the study underscores the importance of a new state policy that allows young adults to remain in foster care until age 21; foster care benefits for California youth currently expire at 18.

The report also found that costs associated with the criminal justice system accounted for the largest share of average public costs in adulthood, and that a quarter of former foster youth and two-thirds of crossover youth spend some time in jail as young adults. The average cumulative cost of those jail stays over four years ranged from $18,430 for a foster youth to $33,946 for a crossover youth. In addition, jail time affected the earning potential of youth in the system, with one-third of former foster youth and half of crossover youth experiencing a period of extreme poverty and extremely low earnings during their young adult years.

"This study provides compelling evidence that these young adults, especially the crossover youth, should be targeted with housing support, education, employment services, and mentoring, if the county and the state are to avoid a lifetime of public dependence by this highly vulnerable population," said Culhane. "The good news is that this is a population that can easily be targeted with assistance and that current costs to the county could be potentially offset by reduced incarceration and public assistance costs."