“California used to give up on kids in foster care, but we changed that by extending care from 18 to 21,” says John Burton, the former state senator who chairs John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY). “That one piece of legislation has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people.”
JBAY was a leader in the advocacy for the passage of this historic legislation, which went into effect on January 1, 2011. In the decade since then, more than 40,000 youth have participated in extended foster care in California. In addition, 22 other states have followed California’s lead by adopting this policy.
“When foster youth had to leave care at 18, they usually had little preparation or support for life after high school,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY. “As a consequence, former foster youth had low levels of college enrollment and high levels of homelessness. But over the past decade we have seen major improvements in college enrollment and completion by foster youth, as well as a significant reduction in homelessness among transition age foster youth.”
Extending foster care to 21 was just the beginning though. Since then, JBAY has sponsored more than 30 new laws aimed at helping foster youth after the age of 18, including increased access to college aid and new programs to prevent homelessness.
“Before 2010, the foster care system had little experience or guidance on how to help young people who were navigating living independently, working full-time or attending post-secondary education,“ Lemley notes. “JBAY has spent the last decade working to build those systems in concert with state agencies, policy makers, and direct service providers.”
Extensive research over the past decade has shown that young people who remain in foster care to age 21 are faring far better than they would have without extended care. Yet they are still not doing as well as their peers who were never in foster care, and COVID has only deepened their challenges.
But on this anniversary, Amy Lemley is focusing on the positive: “As advocates we tend to focus on the urgent problems we face now and the steep path we still have to climb. But looking back over the past decade, we can see that we made substantial, long-term improvements to the foster care system. And those advances have helped tens of thousands of young people, the youth entrusted to the care of our state, to transform their own prospects and outcomes. It’s been, quite literally, life changing.”