Building Bridges for Emancipating Foster Care Youth

When children in foster care turn 18, they are, for the most part, on their own, no longer eligible for foster care. They are called “emancipated”—they are adults, and free from the foster care system—but this freedom often comes without the most basic necessities required to survive. Here are a couple of their stories.

On the day of my so-called emancipation, I didn’t have a high school diploma, a place to live, a job, nothing…The day I emancipated—it was a happy day for me. But I didn’t know what was in store. Now that I’m on the streets, I honestly feel I would have been better off in an abusive home with a father who beat me; at least he would have taught me how to get a job and pay the bills.

—Roberta E., Los Angeles

The day I graduated from high school my foster mom told me, “You’ve been emancipated. You can’t live here anymore.” My social worker showed up—I was still in my little graduation dress and heels, my flowers, my cap on. My social worker had never talked with me. [She just] told me, “I’ve called around and found a shelter for you. You have a bed for four months.”

—Karen D., San Francisco

“Emancipated,” they are legally adults and free from the foster care system. Most entered foster care because abuse or neglect at home triggered the duty of the state to step in and protect them. The state becomes parent; in that role, it must provide special measures of protection. The state must ensure that children in foster care have adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education. But no less important is the responsibility to provide the guidance and support necessary for children to grow into independent adults. When the state fails in its responsibility to protect children wholly dependent on it by not providing for their developmental needs, there are grim consequences. While exact estimates vary, research suggests that somewhere around 20 percent of the approximately 20,000 youth leaving foster care nationally each year will become homeless. For youth who leave foster care with no job or income, few educational prospects, and little emotional support or community connections, emancipation can mean nowhere to turn and no place to go.

Human Rights Watch interviewed young people who were removed as children from their family homes for abuse, neglect, or abandonment and placed in the custody and care of the state of California. After leaving foster care, they became homeless. The 63 young people interviewed had clear conclusions about the causes of their homelessness. No one pointed to a single event, nor did any interviewee wholly blame the child welfare system or another person. Instead, they pieced together a mosaic of events that spanned their teen years and early adulthood. They described missed opportunities to learn skills, the lack of the ability to support themselves, a shortage of second chances when things did not go right, and the fact that no one cared what happened to them.

From Foster Care to Homelessness.

For some youth leaving foster care, homelessness comes the day they emancipate from the foster care system; others move from a foster home into a bad housing situation only to find themselves without shelter shortly thereafter. They may feel lucky to crash on a friend’s couch, or they find themselves sleeping in a car, at an emergency shelter, or in the park. Some are without a steady roof over their heads for days that turn into weeks or even years. Those leaving foster care with special needs often face a particularly rough road: mental health problems or cognitive limitations can bar entry to a transitional living program. So can being a parent. Youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender often have even fewer community resources and support to avoid homelessness. Too many foster children face poverty, early pregnancy, educational failure, criminal victimization, or incarceration in early adulthood. Homelessness, with its attendant dangers—including exposure to predatory crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, and violence—is probably the worst outcome for a young person. Yet homelessness is a predictable future for many foster youth. Social workers know it. Many policymakers know it. Research confirms it. California’s own Department of Social Services concluded that 65 percent of emancipating youth lack safe and affordable housing at the time of emancipation. Although conclusions as to the rate vary, homelessness is a certainty for too many youth leaving foster care.

California’s Failure

California’s Failure. The route from foster care to homelessness is not only well-known to the state, but is, in effect, built into the system. Social workers transport some youth directly from foster homes to emergency shelters, fully aware that these shelters will house them for limited periods before turning them out onto the streets. Others are sent to transitional living situations with no back-up plan in place if things do not work out. Child welfare agencies release some youth from care when they have nowhere to live. Instead of providing extra protections for especially vulnerable youth, including mentally ill or impaired individuals and pregnant girls, state regulations often exclude them from transitional programs.

In California, 65,000 children and youth are in the foster care system, far more than any other single state. Each year, more than 4,000 emancipate. Between 2003 and 2008, over 26,500 youth emancipated from California’s foster care system. If an estimated 20 percent ended up homeless, 5,300 young people went from state care to homelessness in that period of time.

California is failing in an essential duty to children in its care: to prepare them for adulthood and to survive independently. There is no magic switch that at age 18 delivers the skills, knowledge, and support necessary for survival and success. Just as the state has a duty to provide appropriate shelter, food, and health care to children in care, it has a duty to address the crucial developmental needs of childhood and adolescence. The consequences are severe for young people who enter adulthood without this guidance and support.

Findings-No Realistic Plan for Emancipation

California state law requires child welfare agencies to develop, in conjunction with foster youth, a plan for what they will do when leaving foster care. Most of the youth Human Rights Watch spoke with had no plan when they left the system, or if one existed, they did not know about it.

In some cases, state officials fail to develop these plans at all, and in others, they create plans that are unrealistic and unlikely to prevent a youth from becoming homeless. For example, Natalie R. had three weeks left in foster care when we interviewed her. She had not yet finished high school and tests during the previous year placed her performance at an eighth-grade level. When asked if her social worker was putting together a plan with her for emancipation, she said, “Well, we’re talking about college.” There was no plan for where she would live or how she would support herself. Arlena C. told us, “My social worker never sat down with me to talk about emancipation. The only plan was for me to emancipate. They didn’t talk about where I was going to stay after I left foster care or anything like that.” She was 20 years old at the time of her interview, and had been homeless off and on since leaving care.

No Plan for Housing or the Income to Afford It

The vast majority of the young people interviewed by Human Rights Watch had no way to pay for housing at the time of emancipation: 57 of 63 young people we interviewed, or 90 percent, had no source of income when they left foster care and were expected to be on their own. They were also ill-prepared to find and hold a job: 65 percent of those interviewed had not graduated from high school at the time of emancipation. In addition, 62 percent had no medical coverage when they left the state’s care, despite a legal mandate that every former foster youth should have state medical coverage until age 21.

In the last ten years there has been an increase of funding and an infusion of effort to improve transitional living programs in California. However, the number of places is still far too small to assist all those who need them and the funding is under constant threat. Most post-emancipation transitional living programs offer reduced rent and can provide a supportive environment in which to learn life skills. Services can include case management, assistance with education, job training and support, and mentoring. California’s Transitional Housing Program-Plus (THP-Plus) was established by state law in 2001. The number of THP-Plus placements has dramatically increased: in 2003 there were places for 50 youth, by 2007 there were 502, and in 2008, 1,234 places. Yet in 2008, 4,653 youth emancipated from care.

Basic Living Skills

Tony D. told us: “If you’re going to put kids in group homes, in foster care—at least give them what they need to survive and take care of themselves.” We interviewed him at a homeless shelter where he was staying. “[When I aged out of care] I was expected to know how to get a job, buy a car, all that stuff, but … I didn’t have any idea how to go about doing things. So, I ended up on the street.” Raul H. summed it up, “Kids need to be taught how to cook, how to shop. Simple, everyday life skills.” He was 21 years old when we spoke with him, and had been homeless but now was in an apartment.

For youth in care, several things impede what otherwise would be normal opportunities for hands-on learning experiences. Foster parenting tends to be geared to the needs of younger children. Foster parents are not trained or expected to teach adult life skills to teens. Michele Phannix, an experienced foster parent and a mentor to other foster parents, told us, “There needs to be more training on teenage issues for foster parents and how to guide them into becoming functioning adults. Foster parents are not receiving that kind of training.” Dr. Marty Beyer, a psychologist specializing in adolescent development and an expert on child welfare, believes those charged with caring for foster children take on a crucial role. “The role that foster parents play ought to include what most parents think should be done for their children before they go off on their own.” For many of the young people interviewed, however, the state failed to ensure that foster parents provided teens in their care the kind of basic living skills that would be passed on in any typical home.

Nor do group homes teach what adolescents need to learn. Interviewees pointed out that the regimented, institutionalized setting provides even fewer opportunities to learn and practice adult skills than a foster family home. Anya F. was homeless for more than two years after leaving care. She spent a good part of her teenage years in group homes, and described her experience:

While in a group home there were so many things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even learn how to ride the bus on my own—but I had to go to a class that supposedly taught me how to do normal things. It’s a double standard that doesn’t make sense. It’s like they’re saying to us “You must be independent by age 18,” but then they don’t give us the room to learn to be independent. Don’t over-shelter us and then tell us to be independent.

While some youth in foster care participate in county-sponsored independent living skills classes, experts question the effectiveness of teaching life skills in a classroom. In any case, many of the youth interviewed for this report attended few or none of the classes, or said that they were not useful. Roberta attended just one life skills class. She described it as a last-minute cram session: “It was one week before emancipation. They gave us pots and pans, silverware. Taught us how to write a check. … They gave us a certificate for taking the class and we had pizza and that was it.” Others who found the classes useful tended to describe hands-on teaching techniques.

No One to Turn to. One of the statements heard most from interviewees was that no one really cared what happened to them, before or after emancipation. They expressed despair and fear about having no one to turn to after they left foster care; this lack of social support and guidance leaves young people particularly vulnerable to homelessness. While the state is obligated to aid foster youth in establishing and maintaining connections with relatives or other important figures, that did not happen for these young people. 48 of 63 youth interviewed told us they did not have an adult they could turn to in a crisis, for example, for a ride to the doctor if they were very sick. Nine said “maybe,” there might have been someone they could call, but were unsure. Just six youth of the 63 young people interviewed told us they had an adult on whom they could rely. “I feel like the people who were supposed to help me weren’t there for me—and I think what’s going to happen to me?” one young woman said. “Am I going to live on the streets for the rest of my life?”

Support Before and After Age 18 Is Needed

An abrupt end to childhood does not comport with what is now known about adolescent development or the norms in the US. In a healthy family, preparation for adulthood begins early in life and, in most US families, youth are not cut off from support at age 18. Instead, intact families continue to provide a wide spectrum of emotional and financial support as youth move through early adulthood. As Ashley, a former foster youth, said, “[N]obody puts their real kid out at 18. It’s being realistic.” In contrast, youth who age out of the foster care system must survive on their own without the support available to other young adults. While some are able to make a smooth transition to adulthood, many face serious challenges. Research shows that that youth emancipating from foster care are more likely than young people in the general population to have educational deficits and experience mental health problems, economic instability, criminal victimization, and early childbearing. They need support throughout early adulthood even more than the general population of young adults. The young people interviewed for this report were currently or recently homeless former foster children. They hailed from all over California, from communities urban and rural, north and south. While there were many causes of their homelessness, their lives bear witness to the need for dramatic change in how foster youth are treated. This report is not a comprehensive review of what California’s 58 counties are doing to protect and provide for children and youth in care, nor is it a survey of programs, systems, or laws. Instead, it is a lens narrowly focused on one of the system’s most striking failings: the likelihood that youth in foster care will become homeless because foster care has not prepared them for adulthood.


The SWIM team is developing a transitional housing program called A Bridge to Success where we solicit donors to sponsor emancipating foster care youth. The sponsorship program would begin once a youth in foster care turns sixteen. Each youth in the SWIM program will be in this fund. Once they emancipate, they will have access to these funds through their SWIM case worker to pursue college or other training to become entrepreneurs for example. Transitional housing via the SWIM tiny home community, will be provided for one year or longer if recommended by their individual SWIM case worker. A Bridge to Success is expected to launch in January 2021.