UW News

January 23, 2024

Report on Washington’s Extended Foster Care program shows successful ways to support more young adults

UW News

silhouette of a young person looking out a window


The state of Washington’s Extended Foster Care program — in which young adults ages 18-21 can continue to receive some support — could help even more people by expanding participation, providing greater flexibility in eligibility criteria, and extending benefits, according to a recent report from the University of Washington.

Commissioned by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, the report was completed by Partners for Our Children, which researches and advocates for policy and practice reforms in the child welfare system. The study was led by faculty in the UW School of Social Work and conducted with guidance from an advisory group of young people with lived expertise in Extended Foster Care. Along with interviews and data collected by the state, the UW team reviewed the literature on foster care programs nationwide and on the challenges this population of young adults faces.

The report has been submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office for the 2024 legislative session, where a bill has been introduced that would implement recommendations from the report.

“Extended Foster Care can be very helpful, and the state should try to enroll everyone who is 18 and exiting foster care,” said Emiko Tajima, associate professor of social work at the UW and executive director of Partners for Our Children, “Not everyone is aware of it and not everyone who is eligible for it is using it. There are issues with how it’s being implemented, but overall, it’s a program that works, and it’s needed now more than ever.”

The state Legislature in 2022 approved the systems assessment of services and benefits for young adults in Extended Foster Care. Legislators were interested in how to address any service gaps to better prepare participants for the transition to adulthood.

Washington state established its Extended Foster Care program in 2012 to provide additional services to young people who would typically “age out” of foster care but need some support to successfully transition to adult life. Among the services and benefits offered are placement supports and stipends for Supervised Independent Living (SIL) settings, health insurance and continued case management. With the help of federal funding, nearly every state offers a version of the program; as of June 2022, 858 young adults were enrolled in Washington.

To qualify for Washington’s Extended Foster Care, a person must, as of age 18, request continued placement in foster care or a Supervised Independent Living site. They must be enrolled in an educational, vocational or employment program, be working half or full time, or unable to engage in any of these activities due to a documented medical condition.

These can be significant obstacles for young people who have spent time in foster care, the report notes. Emerging adulthood, as researchers term it, is often described as a time of identify formation, exploration, and being in-between. It is  a critical developmental period in which inequalities across education, income and social support accumulate as advantages or disadvantages with lifelong consequences. But it’s also a time of continued brain growth: Impulse control, reasoning and organizational skills can develop well into a person’s 20s.

“Emerging adulthood is such a critical time in someone’s life, and often the first time people are paying bills, living on their own, and trying to find their place in the world. Without support from our social network and resources from local, state and federal institutions, none of us are able to build the relationships and skills necessary to transition from dependent adolescents into interdependent and self-sufficient members of society,” said Kristian Jones, an assistant professor of social work at the UW and a co-author of the report.

Young people who have been in foster care may have disadvantages in areas like education, income, social connections and access to a supportive safety net. Many have suffered trauma, abuse and discrimination. Some have been incarcerated. According to state data cited in the report, roughly one-third of young adults enrolled in or eligible for foster care are parents. In a related survey, co-designed with young people with lived experience in Extended Foster Care, of 63 current or past participants in the program, nearly half were experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.

The UW report also identified specific subgroups of participants who may be especially marginalized, and whose needs can go unmet. In addition to those who are pregnant or parenting, these groups include BIPOC young people, who are overrepresented in the foster care system; LGBTQ+ young people; and individuals with disabilities.

That’s why expanded services are needed, the report finds. According to a longitudinal study based on California’s extended foster care system, called California Youth Transitions, each additional year of services increased the probabilities young people would complete high school and enroll in college. Each extra year also decreased the odds they’d be arrested or experience homelessness.

Based on such research and on interviews with community partners and social workers around Washington, the assessment team outlined key recommendations for the program:

  • Extend participation to all young adults in foster care
  • Expand eligibility criteria
  • Focus preventive supports on groups such as young parents
  • Allocate more funding and resources to long-term housing supports
  • Add more peer support networks and services
  • Prepare adolescents for Extended Foster Care before age 18

Increase DCYF staff throughout the state, potentially with units devoted only to Extended Foster Care, and add trainings in developmentally tailored and culturally responsive practice

“This report demonstrates that youth who enroll in Extended Foster Care in Washington have better outcomes than those who do not. But we still have work to do,” Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, wrote in a statement accompanying the report. “Beyond the recommendations in the systems assessment, we need to leverage existing resources to help youth access mental and behavioral health services, prevention services, and early childhood supports when they are pregnant or parenting. We must develop strategies that support them to complete high school, get postsecondary degrees and get on a path to a career.”

For more information, contact Tajima at etajima@uw.edu.