After months of discussions and weighing options, one of our foster care clients who would soon be turning 18 made her decision to stay in the custody of the Department of Social Services (DSS) until she aged out at 21. As staff, we felt she made the wisest decision for herself and her future. This is because the “typical” outcomes for a former foster youth are not the most promising. Strikingly, over 60% of emancipated foster youth will earn annual incomes of less than $6,000, which is below the federal poverty line. Only 3-4% of former foster youth obtain a 4-year college degree. Girls in foster care are also almost 50% more likely to become pregnant by age 19. The numbers reflect a multitude of intertwined barriers that exist for foster youth transitioning to adulthood.
In North Carolina, youth aging out of foster care can choose between two options when approaching age 18:
– Emancipate themselves from DSS custody and move forward as a completely independent adult.
– Sign a Voluntary Placement Agreement (VPA) and remain in DSS custody until age 21.
Many foster youths, just like any other teenager, look to their 18th birthday with a sense of freedom. It means they will finally be able to dictate every detail of their life, minus the oversight implemented by DSS. For those who have had traumatic experiences in foster care, it is understandable why they may be more inclined to rid DSS from their life.
However, the numbers paint a very different picture for foster youth transitioning to adulthood on their own. Former foster youth have higher rates of experiencing homelessness, mental health struggles, heightened risk for justice system involvement, and difficulty finding and/or retaining a secure and stable job. These challenges would be extremely difficult for a young adult with even the best support system. The vast majority of foster youths, however, lack the support system needed financially and emotionally to guide them through the journey towards successful independence.
Signing the VPA is a way for them to have that critical support system while greatly enhancing their chances at a financially, mentally, and physically stable life trajectory. The details may vary a bit by county in North Carolina, but generally foster youth can receive the following benefits from the VPA:
– Coverage of 4-year college tuition and 100% of costs associated with college, permitted they attend a state school within North Carolina.
– Rental assistance, including for non-college attending youth. This is provided they work a certain number of hours per week if not attending college.
– Monthly stipend and help with major costs like purchasing a car.
– Assigned social worker to provide additional support and resources with visits every three months.
Although some foster youths view the VPA as inhibiting their free will, it doesn’t prevent them from becoming their own legal guardian at 18. They can advocate for themselves now as opposed to a social worker having to approve every single decision they may make. Under the VPA, social worker visits are only every 3 months as opposed to every month before age 18. Even youths who decide against the VPA at 18 can change their mind and return to it up until 6 months before their 21st birthday as long as they are also working or in school. The VPA incentivizes higher education and/or employment, increasing chances of a higher-paying career path. It also keeps a caring adult in their lives through the social worker that will check on them, provide resources, and make sure they are receiving the support they need emotionally and physically during a defining transition to independent living.
The reality is that the benefits of remaining in DSS custody and signing a VPA are abundant. Importantly, it increases the likelihood of stable income, promoting upward mobility for foster youth. Simply signing a VPA has the power to completely alter the trajectory of a foster youth’s life, breaking cycles for generations to come.
At Crittenton, the young women in foster care in our independent living program, Legacy Hall, and in our mother/child program, Sarah’s House, who have chosen the VPA path are still in control of their lives while also receiving assistance to make their lives a little easier. They are developing into promising, self-sustaining young adults by attending college, working, and taking advantage of the opportunities placed before them to guarantee a better tomorrow.
Dazia Miller, MPA
Dazia is a development associate at Crittenton and works on bringing relevant and less-known discussion topics to the forefront. Please reach out to her email at email@example.com for any ideas, questions, or comments. If you want to be a part of the positive change happening at Crittenton, click here.