In one of last week’s most read guest essays in the New York Times, Sixto Cancel shares his experience growing up in foster care and calls on policymakers to listen to what people with lived experience in child welfare say needs to change, including expanding kinship care and eliminating institutional placements. Since “aging out” of the system in his early twenties, Cancel has worked to reform it. How? By gathering and sharing real-time insights and recommendations from the community of young people in foster care—work enabled by Think of Us, the organization he started six years ago. With 20,000 young people in foster care facing an abrupt exit from the system this week as the moratorium on aging out ends, we caught up with Cancel for more context.
Ashoka: Sixto, first off, how many young people are in foster care and what was the child welfare system set up to do?
Sixto Cancel: About 400,000 children are in foster care in the U.S. at any given time. These young people are removed from their families when there is abuse or neglect, and far too many are removed for reasons of poverty. The system is charged with supporting children and families so that they can be safely reunited when possible—or placed with siblings in loving, culturally-appropriate adoptive homes. Many of us—and I include myself here—experience a child welfare system that falls way short, despite the good intentions of many involved.
Ashoka: For those not reunited with family, how do they exit child welfare—what is “aging out”?
Cancel: Each year, more than 20,000 young people age out of the system. Aging out happens when foster youth reach on their birthday (age 18-21) without having been reunited or adopted. Growing up in foster care, with case managers dictating many aspects of life, does not prepare you to suddenly be on your own with no continuing support. Think of it: young adults not in foster care are not pushed out the door with the message, “Good luck finding a place to stay tonight, and setting up your life.” Most people in foster care lack the social safety nets their peers rely on, and many face the long-term health and developmental impacts of childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Aging out of the system is one of the biggest failures of child welfare.
Ashoka: Have young people been aging out during the pandemic, or was this suspended due to Covid?
Cancel: In the initial months of the pandemic, while the rest of the country was expected to shelter in place, many did age out of the system. Congress issued stimulus payments to millions of Americans, but as these supports were not reaching many former foster youth, Congress took action. In December 2020, House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, House Minority Leader McCarthy, and Senate Minority Leader McConnell included $400 million in emergency relief specific to current and former foster youth in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. This issued a moratorium on young people aging out of the system. States were tasked with distributing funding and granted flexibility for young people to receive extended supports. Since May, Think of Us has helped connect 30,000 young people to their state’s pandemic relief funds and some have re-entered voluntary foster care to be connected with employment and education services.
Ashoka: Why is this week significant?
Cancel: If Congress does act today, on October 1st, about 20,000 young people in foster care will age out of the system at once, as the emergency moratorium on aging out expires and other critical supports for foster youth come to an end. Aging out of foster care marks the end of a long list of supports: housing arrangements, access to education and mental health services, and the ability to contact your social worker for guidance. Think of Us has gathered an unprecedented dataset of the direct experiences of 38,000 current and former foster youth over the last ten months. Young people identified their greatest challenges: housing insecurity, income loss, hunger, barriers to accessing healthcare, lack of transportation, and childcare shortages. We received 10,229 requests for housing vouchers, 9,436 young people requested support in getting connected to a job, and 6,308 requested help applying for food stamps.
Ashoka: Why are young people exiting foster care so unprepared?
Cancel: The John F. Chafee program within child welfare is responsible for preparing young people to become self-sufficient, but it is consistently underfunded and based on outdated adolescent and developmental science. The pandemic forced the child welfare system into triage mode for the last 18 months, scrambling just to make sure young people in care had basic food and housing. Child welfare is operating in a state of emergency, under extreme pressure as needs are compounded with the impacts of the pandemic. The system does not have the capacity to both manage this and prepare for the largest aging out cliff in American history.
Ashoka: Covid has already been hard for many young people in foster care—during lockdown and even now, the message to all of us was: stay home. But many in your community had no home to go to…
Cancel: Correct. Our community has faced tremendous challenges during the pandemic, and the delayed response of federal and state agencies has far-reaching consequences. For many young people who have suffered abuse and neglect, the conditions of the pandemic triggered past trauma and raised fears about being unsafe, hungry, or without a home. Beyond pandemic relief efforts, existing interventions to support and prepare them for adulthood have not been implemented in the same way during the pandemic. Due to health and safety protocols, child welfare agencies and community organizations faced limited access to young people, particularly the more than 43,000 who live in institutionalized placements—and these young people comprise a large percentage of those who age out of foster care. They are also disproportionately people of color, trans, and/or queer.
Ashoka: What is the cost of taking action or not taking action?
Cancel: Before the pandemic, outcomes for those who age out of foster care are disastrous: 26% are parents by age 19, only 66% get high school degrees and 3% graduate college. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that an extension of the moratorium would cost $130 million. To create better outcomes, states should receive additional funds to contract organizations that provide wrap-around support to young people, helping them get back to school or find work. So the upfront investment is no where near the cost of not taking action. For example, 23% of former foster youth experience homelessness, and 23% of the 20,000 young people who are scheduled to age out is 4,600. According to the Future Savings Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, if 4,370 fewer young people experience homelessness, it would save $9.6 million in spending on beds per night across homeless episodes. Pre-pandemic, 26% of young people who aged out of foster care unprepared and unsupported experienced incarceration: 26% of 20,000 is 5,200 people. The savings of 4,870 fewer young people experiencing arrest and incarceration? It’s $1.6 billion saved on the cost of per-day detention, and other costs, human and financial, associated with more crime. As these numbers start to show, investment in these young people now—supporting their transition to adulthood—will yield lifelong savings, including to taxpayers.
Ashoka: For people who want to learn more, where can they go?
Cancel: I’d recommend A Call to Action For Transition-Aged Foster Youth During the Pandemic and its Recommendations at a Glance, a report written by Youth Law Center and Think of Us. You can visit our Take Action page to find specific, actionable steps that any person can take—citizens, community leaders, elected officials, members of faith and community organizations, people with lived experience in foster care, child welfare professionals. I encourage people to read a letter from foster youth who also created a sign-on letter to the President and to Congress. Another good resource to learn more about long-term child welfare reform is: From COVID-19 Response to Comprehensive Change: Policy Reforms to Equip Youth and Young Adults in Foster Care to Thrive.
Ashoka: Looking ahead, what have you and Think of Us learned that can set us on a corrective path?
Cancel: We’re working on far-reaching post-pandemic reforms to better support young people transitioning to adulthood from foster care. This includes establishing functional feedback loops that meaningfully engage people whose lives have been impacted by foster care—current and former foster youth, biological families, foster/adoptive families, and child welfare workers—at every stage of policy development, implementation, and evaluation. Only when we start to systematically listen to those with experience of the problem will we move to a new plane of action—no longer focused on putting out fires but transforming the system as a whole, with all its human and financial cost, and asking: What kind of system will best serve young people so that they can heal, develop, and thrive?