Shmuly Yanklowitz

Supporting Family Values: We Must Expand Foster Care Access to Age 21

A previous foster child of mine (Shmuly Yanklowitz)
A previous foster child of mine (Shmuly Yanklowitz)

I remember holding one of my foster children as they were about to transition out of my home. I knew they were going back to an unideal environment and would likely end up back in the foster-care system. While I was sad to say goodbye, my mind was equally occupied with worries about what their future would look like. As much as I prayed that they’d be blessed with health, stability, and peace, I knew their path was statistically likely to be rough.

This election year, as American politics look to be growing ever more futile, there is a bipartisan bill that I think would be a layup political win for all involved: the Increasing Access to Foster Care Through Age 21 Act.

The idea here is that the federal government should incentivize states around the country to expand programs and services in the foster-care system from age 18 to 21. About 75,000 children each year pass through the U.S. foster-care system. And, according to the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, based on data from the National Foster Youth Institute, “Upon reaching age 18, about 20% of children who were in the foster care system will be instantly homeless,” “about 1 out of every 2 children that age out of foster care will be able to find employment by the time they are 24 years old”, “about 70% of girls who age out of foster care will be pregnant before they reach the age of 21,” and “children that age out of foster care have a less than 3% chance of earning a college degree in their lifetime.”

We should pass this bill out of compassion; these young people don’t have a safe family to live with, and as a society we ought to invest in them. However, if that is not enough of a reason for us to get on board, we might also consider the benefits it has to society. It’s not good for any of us if those who age out of the foster-care system fail. We want to prevent the crime, unemployment, and homelessness that come with forcing unprepared individuals out into the world all alone.

We know from Tanakh that we should take care of the vulnerable child. We’re told in the Book of Isaiah:

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the vulnerable child;

Defend the cause of the widow.

Having been a foster parent around ten times, I’ve witnessed myself how overburdened the system is already, and how much more federal and state support is needed.

Really, what this is about is strengthening families. It is a terrible social ill that there are young people who grow up without properly supportive families. Our call is to strive for a country in which everyone is connected to people they can call family.

We used to think of 18-year-olds as self-sufficient adults, but if you know any 18-year-olds, or if you think back to yourself at 18, you know that is really not an age for most people — even those with the healthiest backgrounds — to be equipped to make it on their own in the world.

Psychologists categorize these young people as being in “emerging adulthood,” a phase thought to last into one’s late 20s. And so, for young people without family support, we should ideally have systems in place to help these people up to maybe 30. Really, expanding foster-care access through age 21 is the least we can do — for them, and for America.

I urge Congress to pass the Increasing Access to Foster Care Through Age 21 Act, and I urge faith communities, community groups and all citizens to defend human dignity and help strive toward a world in which everyone experiences the gift and stability of a family.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.