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Perspective | Three steps to unlocking a better future for North Carolina youth

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New data on older youth in foster care is sounding an alarm for federal policymakers. The numbers prove it: too many youth lack permanent family connections, and too few are plugged in to the services they need.

Adolescence is a pivotal time that charts the course for success in life. I see evidence of this every day in my work supporting child and family well-being — a career I pursued after personally experiencing the not-so-great side of foster care. Congress understood the importance of this phase of life, too, when it created the Chafee program nearly 25 years ago to ease the steep climb to adulthood for youth in foster care.

As a flexible funding source for states, Chafee was intended to offer “transition age youth” in foster care support they need to succeed in young adulthood — help with education, work, housing, financial skills, mentoring, and more. This is the very support youth outside of foster care get from their families. But despite the tremendous need, the latest reporting shows that Chafee services are reaching fewer than half of this country’s eligible youth. Here in North Carolina, it’s even worse: Recent federal data show that 94% of eligible youth did not receive a single Chafee service from 2013-2021. Our young people are being deprived of help at the very moment targeted resources are proven to shape life’s journey for the better.

What should North Carolinians make of these findings? My initial reaction is disbelief and concern for our young people. At the same time, I am optimistic about the opportunity we have to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of countless youth in foster care.

In creating Chafee 25 years ago, Congress has already shown it cares deeply about our youth. Congress can demonstrate its commitment today by properly investing in and redesigning Chafee — a step that will create a stronger workforce, more economic mobility, and fewer individuals experiencing homelessness, incarceration, and isolation from society. Youth and family well-being — the indicators of a healthy society — will skyrocket. Young people will feel more valued as they see more evidence that our elected leaders believe in their great potential.

I know what it’s like to be a part of a system where you are overlooked. I still remember the sting of learning about Chafee-funded services that could have helped with my education after I was too old to benefit. I missed out because my services coordinator failed to tell me, and many youth formerly in foster care like me report the same glaring gaps in information.

I now serve as an advisor to Journey to Success, a federal advocacy campaign to improve outcomes for all youth from foster care. Together, we urge Congress to consider our data- and youth-informed approach to reinvent Chafee, beginning with three steps:

  1. Ensure every eligible youth in foster care learns about Chafee services.

    Young people shouldn’t go without support simply because they weren’t informed. There are proven outreach models Congress can use to inform policy.
  2. Increase Chafee investment by at least $100M per year so state and local agencies have resources to serve all eligible youth.
  3. Improve the effectiveness of Chafee by providing services older youth say they need most — mental health, housing, education, employment, and transportation — and involve youth in continuous program improvement.

To North Carolina’s credit, I see some key ingredients for success in our state — like engaging youth in planning Chafee services. However, the latest data in North Carolina and throughout the country sends an unmistakable message: Broader federal action is overdue.

In recent weeks, congressional subcommittees have focused attention on foster youth issues. The U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Subcommittee on Work and Welfare held a hearing on modernizing child welfare, and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law is holding a series of hearings to examine the experiences of foster youth.

Representative Greg Murphy (NC-3) and North Carolina Senator Tom Tillis sit on the full committees that will weigh in on this subcommittee work. I urge Rep. Murphy, Sen. Tillis, and all of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to keep the needs of North Carolina’s youth in focus and join in the committees’ efforts to advance much-needed reforms with urgency. Youth across our state and the nearly 150,000 transition age youth nationwide need Congress to step up and create a better path.

Mariah Thompson-Grissett

Mariah Thompson-Grissett serves as a youth advocate and policy adviser to the Journey to Success campaign and works as a Mental Health Specialist at a private research-based non-profit providing therapeutic and educational services for children and families.