“We need to listen to young people, and we need to give them latitude to kind of experiment and make mistakes. And unfortunately, our system doesn’t really allow for that.”
May is National Foster Care Month, and groups that serve foster youths and families say improvements are needed for outcomes and to reduce disparities for those aging out of care.
Roughly 40% of youths who age out will experience homelessness within a year, and about half of foster children in the Commonwealth identify as Black or Latino. The median income for former foster youths up to age 26 is less than $9,000 a year.
Shaheer Mustafa is the CEO of HopeWell, which provides comprehensive foster-care services to families and young people throughout the system. He said the point of transition from foster care to adulthood is key.
“Our brains aren’t even fully developed until we’re in our late 20s, arguably even into our 30s,” said Mustafa. “So we need to listen to young people, and we need to give them latitude to kind of experiment and make mistakes. And unfortunately, our system doesn’t really allow for that.”
Mustafa said Massachusetts does have what’s known as extended foster care, but there are many hoops to jump through, and more accessible supports are needed. There are more than 9,500 kids and teens in foster care in the Commonwealth.
Mustafa pointed to data showing a quarter of young people who have experienced foster care will be incarcerated, more than half will drop out of high school and fewer than 5% earn a postsecondary degree.
He said the support network for young people aging out of care needs to be broader than just the child welfare system.
“In a place like Massachusetts,” said Mustafa, “where we have really arguably the world’s epicenter for postsecondary institutions, we do not have campus-based supports – specifically for youths who have aged out of foster care.”
He added that HopeWell has a program called My First Place, which offers former foster youths rent-free apartments while they identify, plan for and work to achieve their long-term goals.