A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
Foster Care Outcomes


According to a nationwide study of runaway youths, more than one-third had been in foster care in the year before they took to the streets. More than one out of five youths who arrive at a shelter come directly from a foster or group home, with 38 percent nationally saying they had been in foster care at some time during the previous year, the study found.

In a new phenomenon compared with past surveys, almost 11 percent of the youths said they were homeless and living on the streets before coming to shelters. These findings were the most disturbing to emerge from a study of 170 runaway shelters, said survey director Deborah Bass.[1]

Some experts estimate that 45 percent of those leaving foster care become homeless within a year.[2]

A California study in Contra Costa County found that a third of children placed in foster care eventually end up homeless, and 35% are arrested while in foster care.[3]

Inappropriate placements and a lack of needed services are partly to blame, as Dennis Lepak of the Contra Costa County Probation Department explained to a Congressional subcommittee: "Children are put in inappropriate placements, not designed to offer family counseling, psychiatric treatment, or drug treatment. Children are not prepared to return to families, nor are they provided with a specialized educational and vocational training they need to survive after they become 18." As a result, says Lepak: "They become the new homeless."[4]

The problem is universal in scope. A six-month investigation conducted by the Charlotte Observer found that: "North Carolina's lack of commitment to foster care is helping create a population of throwaway children, many of whom go on to lives of substance abuse, homelessness, crime."[5]

Federal funding contributes to the crisis, as Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America, explains:

Since federal funding guidelines encourage state-run foster care programs to emphasize short-term, crisis-management services, nongovernment players must concentrate on longer-range, skill-development programs. Youngsters leaving foster-care ill-equipped for life on their own often end up homeless or permanently dependent on welfare services.[6]

The disproportionate representation of former foster care wards among the homeless population has long been documented. According to the 1994 Green Book Overview of Entitlement Programs: "Several surveys conducted during the mid-1980s showed that a significant number of homeless shelter users had been recently discharged from foster care."[7]

One such survey conducted in the Minneapolis area found that between 14 and 26 percent of homeless adults were former foster care children.[8]

A subsequent survey of the long-term homeless in Minneapolis found that 39 percent had experienced foster care or institutional care as children.[9]

A New York City survey found that between 25 and 50 percent of the young men in the homeless shelters were former foster care wards.[10]

Perhaps the most distressing study of all, conducted in Calgary, consisted of interviews with so-called "street kids." It was found that an astounding 90 percent had been in foster care prior to winding up living on the streets.[11]

Even among the homeless, the risks of continued family disruption are significantly greater than among the general population. An ongoing study by the Institute for Children and Poverty reveals that homeless families whose heads of households grew up in foster care are at greatest risk of dissolution.

Individuals who grew up in foster care are 30% more likely to be substance abusers and 50% more likely to have a history of domestic violence than the overall homeless population. Twice as many of these heads of households have already lost at least one child to foster care.[12]


A 1991 federal study of former foster care wards found that one-fourth had been homeless, 40 percent were on public assistance and half were unemployed. Connecticut officials estimate 75 percent of youths in the state's criminal justice system were once in foster care.[13]

According to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers, 20 percent of children living in runaway shelters come directly from foster care. Children placed in out-of-home care, regardless of the reason, are at higher risk of developing alcohol and drug problems. The survey also found that 80 percent of prisoners in Illinois spent time in foster care as children.[14]

Karl Dennis, executive director of the Illinois based Kaleidoscope, the first child welfare agency in the country to provide unconditional care for children, says that in California, 80 percent of the adults in in the correctional facilities "are graduates of the state; the juvenile justice, the child welfare, the mental health and the special education systems."[15]


The outcomes that many former foster children may face are far from limited to homelessness and imprisonment. According to the Youth Law Center, which has filed suits against several child welfare and foster care systems on behalf of abused and neglected children as well as foster care wards: "Lack of stability and a permanent home are evident in the extraordinarily high incidence of substance abuse, homelessness and psychological problems among former foster children."[16]

Under a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services, Westat, Inc. released the second phase of a two-phase report in 1992 as a follow up on youths who had been emancipated from foster care during the period from January 1987 and July 1988.[17]

Westat found that the status of older foster care youth 2 1/2 to 4 years after discharge is "adequate at best" and that services are needed for this population to improve their outcomes. The 1994 Green Book describes the results of the second survey:

Westat reported that only 54 percent of the study population had completed high school, 49 percent were employed at the time of the interview, 38 percent maintained a job for at least 1 year, 40 percent were a cost to the community in some way at the time of the interview (receiving public assistance, incarcerated, etc.), 60 percent of the young women had given birth to a child, 25 percent had been homeless for at least one night, their median weekly salary was $205, and only 17 percent were completely self-supporting.

The situation would appear to be somewhat worse in the state of Florida, at least with respect to high school graduations. In 1996, a suit was filed in Tallahassee Circuit Court that accused the state of Florida of failing to adequately educate its foster children. Miami attorney Karen Gievers filed the suit claiming that while 73 percent of Florida children graduate from high school or get an equivalent diploma, less than half of the state's foster children do.[18]

A decade passes, as little changes. A study issued in 2006 reviewed cases of 926 youth who aged out of foster care between 1999 and 2004. Few were able to finish vocational or college educations, while many wound up in low-paying jobs.

More than a third had been arrested for a felony or misdemeanor crime within three years of leaving foster care. For females, a third had given birth within that same time frame. The study also found that 57 percent of the youths who left foster care since 2002 had been diagnosed with a major mental illness.[19]


A report issued by the The Center for the Future of Teaching in May of 2010 sought to improve the policies and practices related to the educational outcomes of children and youth in foster care. The 12 experts interviewed in the study collectively describe "research lags," "holes," "gaps in knowledge," the "paucity of research on educational outcomes," and "lack of evidence-based practices" contributing to what are described as "the generally dismal educational outcomes" that foster children have. The study describes the many obstacles they face:

Children and youth in foster care confront significant obstacles along their educational journey. They typically have higher rates of absenteeism, grade retention, disciplinary referrals, and behavior problems than the general K-12 population, and test below grade level on standardized measures. They are twice as likely as the general student population to leave school without a diploma and often face bleak life prospects after "aging out" of the foster care and school systems. Much has been written about childhood suffering, family disruptions, and systemic obstacles that partly explain these compromised outcomes. According to the experts, filling the information gap is critical for turning around "the perfect storm of resulting school failure" and promoting school success.

The study shows just how little we actually know about the impacts of foster care, and of the theoretical benefits of program interventions and other social services. When asked about the possible benefits of early intervention services for foster children: "Nearly all of the experts said 'we don't know who or how many' are assessed, referred, or receive services."

"There is no research that assesses the value and feasibility of expanding eligibility and access to early intervention services for all young children in foster care," the study explained. "There is, however, a rift in opinion among the experts on this issue," as the report explains:

Some asserted that all young children in foster care are harmed to some degree by the circumstances that result in an out-of-home placement and, as a result, could benefit from a continuum of support services, starting with early interventions. Others viewed this as misguided. They doubted that early intervention services as currently designed and delivered can moderate the effects of foster care and are concerned that the system's capacity is already strained serving children with an assessed delay or disability. The issue of universal early intervention services is unresolved and "very ripe for investigation."

As a group, the experts agreed that "we know virtually nothing about what happens in classrooms" for children in foster care. "They knew of no research that specifically identified effective instructional practices for this student population," the report explains.

picThe experts knew of no research that examined factors that contribute to resilience and high performance in school for children and youth in foster care. "We haven't done this research because so many of them do poorly."

As a group, the experts "regarded available data on the educational outcomes of children and youth in foster care as inadequate for either research or practical purposes." As one expert explained: "We don't know what we don't know since disaggregated data generally don't exist."

Significantly, there was one point on which all of the experts were of one mind: "foster parents, educators, case workers, judges and others often lack the knowledge, skills, training, and support to effectively advocate and, likewise, there is a need for more and better information to put into their practice."[20]

A study issued in 2005 examined the case records of 659 foster care alumni who had been in the care of Casey Family Programs or the Oregon or Washington State child welfare agencies between 1988 and 1998. The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study found that while alumni completed high school at rates similar to the general population, they used GED programs to complete high school at six times the rate of the general population.

Sixty five percent of the alumni had experienced seven or more school changes from elementary through high school, 20.6 percent had obtained any degree or certificate beyond high school, while 1.8 percent of those alumni under age 25 had obtained a bachelor's degree. Over twenty two percent had been homeless for one or more days after the age of 18, while about 33 percent had household incomes at or below the poverty level and lacked health insurance.[21]

Foster youths are not necessarily a homogeneous group. Some children are remarkably resilient, and find the wherewithal to succeed in spite of the obstacles set in their path. A study conducted by Casey Family Programs of eight foster youth who graduated from college earning degrees presents fifteen major themes concerning college success.

"My family is important to me" emerged among the major themes. "For the most part, these youth valued what family they had. Three students held out the hope that some day they would reunite, to some degree, with their biological parents. Among the top goals of one young woman was spending more time with her biological family, with whom she had lost contact when she was a teenager," the study explains. One of the young men stated: "My family is very important to me. I didn't feel I had the right to be 10 hours away from them" to attend a college.

"Their accomplishments suggest that all young people, including foster youth and youth with disabilities, can succeed academically given adequate support and advocacy from educators, professionals, and their caregivers," explains the study's abstract. "The perspectives of these graduates on going to college and earning a degree, despite various barriers, presents an opportunity to learn how other young adults like them might be better supported."[22]

Kayla VanDyke is one such remarkably resilient youth, having lived in seven foster placements, and as a result having attended ten different schools.

She missed entire content sections because the school in which she enrolled taught a subject in a different sequence than the one that she'd left. She skipped the entirety of fourth grade during a year of homelessness. When she and her mother were finally accepted into a Minneapolis homeless shelter, she went back to school and was enrolled in fifth grade because her academic records couldn't be found and "no one pressed the issue."

Kayla testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in April of 2010, seeking to put a face on the problems of educating foster and homeless youth. Students, Kayla said, should have the right to remain in their old school when they move to a new home.


VanDyke explained that she felt uncomfortable asking her new foster parents to drive her to her old school, even if it was only a few minutes away. "It goes back to emotional stability, you're in a new home, you don't know these people they've already made accommodations for you, you feel like a burden so when you go out of your way to ask for accommodation you feel like even more of a burden," she said.

"Despite the statistics that suggest that roughly half of foster care and homeless youth do not finish high school, I will be graduating in four weeks with a 3.7 GPA," she said to a round of applause from the audience in the packed committee room.[23]

U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) invited VanDyke to testify before the committee regarding special populations and education reform. Her role at the hearing was to illustrate the obstacles facing foster youth in the education system, an issue Franken has been working to improve in an upcoming education reauthorization bill.

"Through the force of her determination and innate ability, Kayla has overcome tremendous adversity," said Sen. Franken. "Drawing from her own life experience, she can provide us with valuable guidance on education reform."[24]


A study issued by researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Washington released in May of 2010 found that nearly 60 percent of young men who had been in foster care had been convicted of a crime, compared with 10 percent of young men who had never been in care. For women, three-quarters were on public assistance by age 24. The new study is the largest, and most comprehensive study of young adults leaving foster care in two decades.

Foster youth in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois were eligible to participate in the study if they had entered care before their 16th birthday, were still in care at age 17, and had been removed from home for reasons other than delinquency. Baseline survey data were collected from 732 study participants when they were 17 or 18 years old.

The Midwest Study participants aged 23 or 24 "were over three times as likely not to have a high school diploma or GED, half as likely to have completed any college, and one-fifth as likely to have a college degree. They were also less likely to be enrolled in school, less likely to be pursuing postsecondary education if they were enrolled, and more likely to be enrolled in a 2-year college rather than 4-year college or graduate school if they were pursuing postsecondary education," the report explains.

Almost half of the young adults in the study reported experiencing at least one of five material hardships, such as not enough money to pay rent, not enough money to pay a utility bill, gas or electricity shut off, phone service disconnected, or being evicted during the past year. Nearly 29 percent would be categorized as having low or very low food security.

Forty-two percent of the young men compared with 20 percent of the young women reported that they had been arrested, 23 percent of the young men compared with 8 percent of the young women reported that they had been convicted of a crime, and 45 percent compared with 18 percent of the young women reported that they had been incarcerated, the researchers found.

Young men in the study were more than twice as likely as young women to report that they had been the victim of a violent crime during the past 12 months. Participants were more likely to have been the victim of a violent crime during the past 12 months than participants in a control group. The researchers ultimately concluded:

The picture that emerges from data we collected when they were 23 and 24 years old is disquieting, particularly if we measure their success in terms of self-sufficiency. Across a wide range of outcome measures, including postsecondary educational attainment, employment, housing stability, public assistance receipt, and criminal justice system involvement, these former foster youth are faring poorly as a group both in an absolute sense and relative to young adults in the general population.

"Equally troubling," the researchers explain, is that "fewer than half of the these 23- and 24-year-olds were currently employed, most of those who were employed were not earning a living wage, more than one-quarter had had no income from employment during the past year, and the median earnings of those had worked was a mere $8,000. Their lack of economic well-being is also reflected in the economic hardship they reported, the food insecurity they had experienced, and the means-tested benefits they had received. In addition, nearly 40 percent of these young people have been homeless or couch surfed since leaving foster care."

To conclude on the most optimistic of possible notes, the researchers explained that: "Resiliency is also evident among this sample of former foster youth. Many expressed satisfaction with their lives and optimism about their futures. Moreover, although the child welfare system failed to find them permanent homes, most of these young people continue to have close ties to members of their family."[25]

As Children's Rights attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry explains: "Foster care systems established and funded to serve children are failing, producing only more damaged graduates who will go on to produce new generations of damaged children, who will continue to lead unspeakably tragic lives and who will increasingly tax our public resources."[26]

Jean Adnopoz, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, says children who spend years drifting between foster care homes "can't be expected to come out in any way that would appear to be healthy."

"If you have a child with no psychological parents, essentially adrift in the world, you are headed toward all sorts of bad outcomes," she said. "And we as a society are going to pay and pay and pay for it."[27]

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