Oklahoma lawmakers announced a new study to examine the foster care system to promote adoptions and improve how the state supports the 7,000 children in foster care.
“We must ensure that our Oklahoma adoption and foster care systems are well-funded and functioning efficiently so we can best serve this population in need,” reasoned state Rep. Brad Boles, who was adopted at birth.
Foster care systems need comprehensive reforms from well-meaning lawmakers like Rep. Boles. That includes, among other changes: streamlining the state’s process for identifying potential relatives who can care for children currently in the system; providing legal representation to abused children; and ensuring that children who cannot return to their families are placed in loving homes with a focus on adoption.
But lawmakers should put particular emphasis on youth aging out of foster care.
Over 23,000 American young people will leave the nation’s child welfare system without a permanent family each year. They begin adulthood largely on their own. Transitioning to independence is difficult for many teenagers, but those who age out of foster care face even more significant challenges since they lack the family or social networks that many teens take for granted.
Unfortunately, young people who age out of foster care too often struggle and succumb to poor life outcomes such as homelessness, young single parenthood, unemployment, and incarceration. State lawmakers have several options to help these people get on their feet.
First, lawmakers should ensure that eligible foster children receive Social Security benefits due to a parent’s death or a disability. Unfortunately, many states routinely take foster children’s Social Security survivor or disability benefits. For example, according to the Congressional Research Service, Oklahoma reportedly uses more than $3 million in Social Security benefits to offset child welfare costs. In other words, the state government uses Social Security benefits owed to the most disadvantaged children in the state to pay for their care.
Oklahoma should protect foster children’s Social Security benefits, and these funds should be a nest egg that can be used during their time in care or when they age out of the system. To do this, Oklahoma lawmakers should provide resources to child welfare agencies to pay for the costs of identifying children eligible for benefits and helping them apply.
Second, Oklahoma should give youth aging out “fostering independence accounts” to provide temporary cash assistance to pay for day-to-day living expenses, as FREOPP and Gen Justice recommended last year.
Former foster youth could use the money to pay for housing, food, utilities, clothing, and transportation costs. Providing funding to help pay for these living costs, particularly during high inflation, could help young adults become independent and avoid living on the streets. The state could oversee the accounts to ensure that tax dollars are used appropriately and to help former foster youth stay on child welfare agencies’ radar.
Providing temporary cash assistance would likely pay off for the state over the long term. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated that “citizens and communities are paying $300,000 in taxpayer-funded costs for every young person who ages out of foster care at 18.”
It’s encouraging that Oklahoma lawmakers are focusing attention on foster care and are committed to identifying ways to help at-risk children living in state care. Helping older youth aging out of care by protecting their Social Security benefits and providing temporary cash assistance should be part of the solution.