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Lesson 2.8

Foster Youth:
Educating Foster Kids

This group isn’t so big. Why don’t we help them more?

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The foster care system is designed to help children for whom home is not a good place, due to issues like neglect or abuse.

Kids who are removed from the custody of their parents are among the most at-risk individuals in our society. Many end up in trouble or homeless. California's education funding system specifies foster youth as a high needs group in order to encourage schools to invest increased attention to them.

Less than one percent of the state's children are foster youth, and the rate varies by race and ethnicity. There are over 59,000 foster youth in California. This is significantly fewer than in 1998, when there were over 100,000 foster youth in the state according to a report from the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.

Number of California children in foster care each year, by subgroup. Source: Number of California children in foster care each year on July 1, by subgroup. Source: using data from "Kids Count" analysis, July 2018.

African American/Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children consistently have the highest rates of entry into foster care, exceeding one in every 150 children.

According to research supported by the Stuart Foundation, most kids placed in foster care in California remain in care for one or two years. About a third remain in foster care for three or more years. indicates that in California in 2017, the average length of time for foster children in care was 17.4 months.

From Wiegmann, W., Putnam-Hornstein, E., Barrat, V. X., Magruder, J. & Needell, B. (2014). The Invisible Achievement Gap Part 2: How the Foster Care Experiences of California Public School Students Are Associated with Their Education Outcomes. Page 6Wiegmann, W., Putnam-Hornstein, E., Barrat, V. X., Magruder, J. & Needell, B. (2014) The Invisible Achievement Gap Part 2: How the Foster Care Experiences of California Public School Students Are Associated with Their Education Outcomes. Page 6

Students in foster care face major obstacles. According to The Invisible Achievement Gap [PDF], an extensive study of foster care in California, compared to other subgroups of students foster youth were:

  • Classified with a disability at twice the rate of comparison groups.
  • More likely than other students to change schools during the school year.
  • More likely than the general population of students to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools.
  • Most likely to drop out and least likely to graduate.

The state provides foster youth services and supports through county child welfare agencies and school districts. According to Wiegmann et. al., "Most students were in foster care because of neglect (78 percent). Others were in care due to physical abuse (11 percent), sexual abuse (4 percent), or for other reasons (7 percent)." (Note: California's CALPADS data system identifies fewer students in foster care than the KidsCount system. This may reflect differences in data definition and collection practices.)

There are over 59,000 foster youth in California, significantly fewer than in 1998.

Some organizations and funders have stepped up to try to make the future better for foster kids. These organizations can reasonably claim some successes. For example, First Place For Youth has made significant progress in addressing the problems of homelessness for children who "age out" of the foster care system. Imagine being an 18 year old from a troubled family, suddenly kicked out to find your own way in the world! In California, AB 12, which was passed in 2010, extended some foster care supports to youth through age 21. An organization sponsored by the John Burton Foundation, California Fostering Connections, provides extensive information about these changes and how they affect foster youth.

School districts generally assign students to schools using their address of residence; this can produce quite a bit of disruption for foster youth when they are moved from one home to another. The Every Student Succeeds Act includes some "educational stability" measures to make it easier for foster youth to remain in schools when reassigned.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has consistently invested in issues of child welfare, offers deep resources to learn more about programs designed to help vulnerable children. In California, the Stuart Foundation has also made foster youth a special focus for support and research. For data about foster youth, including statistics about the number of foster kids in your own county, check There are also resources for de-mystifying the system, for Resource Families, and Resource Parents.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented particular challenges for foster youth, exacerbating problems already inherent within the system. "Aging out" of foster care became scarier than ever in a time of extreme uncertainty, and the transition to virtual schooling was tough for foster kids forced to change homes because of the pandemic conditions. Fortunately, there are ways to support foster children. Check this list of 30 ways to help.

Updated May 2017, July 2021


True or false: the number of students in foster care in California has declined over the long term.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:38 pm
Foster Youth Education Toolkit

A step-by-step guide to meeting education challenges and improving outcomes for children and youth in foster care and on probation is now available for California schools.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 9:26 pm
On top of the K-12 experience, foster youth who go to college face a whole new load of challenges. There are many universities who do have supportive programs.
user avatar
afrinier February 16, 2020 at 11:45 am
It was fascinating to follow the link about foster youth in my district, and that it compares mine to the greater Los Angeles area.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 20, 2017 at 6:52 pm
A 2016 report from Children Now asks in its title "Are There Too Many Children in Foster Care?" On the way to answering the question (no), the brief explains many sobering statistics about foster care. For example, four-fifths of reported incidents of abuse and neglect do not lead to a child entering foster care. Most entries to foster care are temporary. Most stats about foster care reflect the number of children currently in care, but the number who will spend time in foster care in the course of their childhood is about 14 times as great. According to a survey, a third of girls in foster care report that they are raped while in care. It appears that these rates are basically steady.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 7, 2015 at 9:56 am
Foster Youth Education Toolkit

A new guide to improve education outcomes for children in foster care is available, focused on their most critical needs. The guide is designed to assist school administrators in meeting the goals of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 9, 2015 at 11:07 am
Foster youth got more support this year in California. New legislation expands the definition of "foster youth" to conform to the broader definition used under LCFF, making thousands of additional children eligible for the FYS program. A $10 million budget increase extends FYS support to the nearly two-thirds of the state’s foster children who were previously ineligible for the program.
user avatar
Joanne Bonner Leavitt November 4, 2015 at 12:57 am
My question is about the young people returning to our schools from the many juvenile camps and other correctional institutions. Often, though by no means always, these are children from Foster Care. Should they not also be included in the special populations of LCFF? I was not surprised by your numbers as I follow these for the League of Women Voters. We are doing far too little to support these children at any age. If they are in foster care as little ones, under five, the foster parent's income counts against the child receiving a subsidy for early education programs. This discourages many families with working parents from becoming foster parents and keeps traumatized or otherwise at risk little ones out of the supportive programs they could use. Correcting this should be a priority for DoE. Another priority should be expanding programs for pregnant and parenting teens, especially those parents which are or have been in foster care. A great opportunity to break the cycle. I'll stop here.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:25 am
Kids are kids are kids. YES it is society's obligation to educate and support every child, regardless of their situation. Even illegal immigrants - they are kids - their parents' choices are not their fault. We need to teach them so they have a chance at a good life. Either we pay for education -- or we pay for incarceration.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 4:01 pm
The costs of incarceration (and other costs) are discussed in Lesson 1.4 "The High Social Costs of Educational Failure."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 23, 2015 at 10:02 pm
Many foster youth - about a third of them in California - live with relatives. As of 2014, living with relatives meant getting by without tutoring or counseling support, which would otherwise be provided. In 2015 Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced legislation to change the eligibility rules. Susan Frey of EdSource provides more information, context and links:
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