Deshawn is about to reach a critical day in his life, his 18th birthday. A 10-year veteran of the state's foster care system, Deshawn was removed from his home at age 8 by social services. His mother, a crystal meth addict, was unable to care for him, and several of her transient boyfriends physically abused him.
Deshawn -- not his real name -- has lived in seven different foster homes and is a disillusioned part-time attendee of a broken, inner-city school system. He is about to graduate from New York State's legal guardianship and a social services system that has woefully failed him. His group home will no longer receive foster-care payments because state funding will terminate. Deshawn is expected to join the adult world and live independently.
About 250,000 youth nationally face this daunting reality each year. Personally, I've never met an 18-year-old who is ready to live on his or her own -- and, as a college professor, I see a lot of young people his age. The vast majority of those I come in contact with rely heavily on family support well into their third decade of life.
A recent national study concluded that as many as half of young Americans from intact families live at home for extended periods between ages 20 and 29, relying on parents financially and emotionally. In fact, developmental psychologists have called this period "emerging adulthood," and suggest that true psychosocial maturity -- signifying maturity and independence -- is typically only reached during the latter half of the third decade of life.
Research paints a grim picture of long-term consequences for young people such as Deshawn. One in 5 of these aged-out youths become homeless; 1 in 4 land up in the criminal justice system within two years; only 58 percent graduate from high school; and less than 3 percent earn a college degree by age 25. Furthermore, as a society we will pay a hefty price for our child welfare policy. We'll foot the bill for the delivery of adult social-services safety-net programs Deshawn is likely to fall into -- including mental health services, homeless shelters and out-of-wedlock child bearing.
What are our responsibilities for the care and nurturing of vulnerable children who are wards of the state and don't have permanent homes? How long should this responsibility last? How we treat and care for our nation's most vulnerable children speaks to the very nature of the values we hold as a society.
But, values aside, there are some sound fiscal reasons to pay attention. A 2008 cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Jim Casey Foundation concluded that considering only three factors -- a failure to graduate from high school, the consequence of teen child bearing, and likely criminal justice costs -- the United States pays $5.7 billion per each group of kids aging out of care each year. The study concludes that it is significantly cheaper to extend foster care into the third decade of life rather than launching youth into the net of adult social services such as welfare and subsidized housing. But U.S. social service systems are only beginning to consider concepts like return on investment when it comes to youth services.
Having already invested significant resources in foster kids, it makes fiscal and moral sense to give them extra support to enhance transition to independent adults. The tools exist to improve the outcomes for our nation's most vulnerable youth. All that is needed are the political will and leadership to make the necessary investments.
I realize that services for youth aging out of care compete with other worthy social needs. But the evidence is clear: In the case of youth aging out of care, we either pay now or pay later.
Rosemary J. Avery is a professor and chair of the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.