As California implements a new law extending foster care benefits to youths until age 21, social workers and policymakers should focus their efforts particularly on the hardest cases, according to a major new study.
The study found that substantial amounts of money are being spent on Los Angeles County's so-called crossover youth — children who start out as foster kids and end up committing crimes that land them in the juvenile justice system.
At least 10% of the 20,000 youths under probation supervision were foster children, the study found. Each crossover youth cost taxpayers $35,000 on average in just the first four years of adulthood — more than twice the amount spent on those who were in only the foster care system or the justice system.
More youth housing and education assistance would require intense financial investment and innovation, but the money would probably be less than what taxpayers currently spend on jail stays, medical bills and welfare benefits once the youths reach adulthood, according to the study's lead author, Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania researcher.
"A lot of funds are going to be spent on this population one way or the other," said Jeannine Balfour, senior program officer at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which funded the study. "We might as well do it in a healthy way that helps them become productive citizens rather than spending it on jail stays and other expenses that don't get us where we want to be."
Many of the crossover youths reached the delinquency system when officials at their schools or group homes called police after being unable to find a parent to handle a routine disciplinary issue. Policymakers believe many of those youths might succeed with proper housing and supervision as they transition into adulthood.
"There was some evidence that independent supportive housing probably improves being able to stay in school and being able to work," Culhane said in an interview. "These programs have been very modestly funded over the years."
One of the most encouraging findings in the study was that nearly half of former foster and probation youths enrolled in community college, including 40% of crossover youths. Nearly half of all foster youths, including crossovers, also found some level of employment in their first four years of adulthood.
But without sufficient housing assistance and other support, just 2% of the youths involved in one of the two systems completed an associate's degree. The results were even worse for crossover youths, who were 91% less likely to finish community college or enter a four-year university than other former probationers.
Indeed, many of the outcomes for the crossover group are bleak. Half experienced extreme poverty in early adulthood, and two-thirds spent time in jail. Their average cumulative earnings in the four years after exit from care were just $13,443, about $15,000 less than other former foster children.
The depth and precision of the report were made possible by the county's willingness to allow Culhane's team access to normally confidential records in various county departments. "We are very grateful. It was really unprecedented," Balfour said.
Earlier in his career, Culhane wrote seminal studies on the chronically homeless. One study estimated that in New York, at least $62 million was being spent annually to shelter just 2,500 hard-core homeless, leading to programs throughout the country that focused on the most difficult cases, including Project 50 in Los Angeles.