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Policy change for Washington’s extended foster care has unknown price tag

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(The Center Square) – Washington foster youth turning 18 are now eligible for support services, including monthly financial assistance up to the age of 21.

Extended Foster Care, or EFC, is not a new program, but what has changed are the eligibility requirements, which have all been removed. Officials say the change will likely result in more foster cases collecting state money, but they aren’t sure how by many as part of gauging the true cost of the policy change.

It’s unclear how much the program expansion will cost Washington taxpayers as the bill summary state’s that “DCYF is to pursue federal reimbursement where appropriate.”

Christopher McLaughlin is the EFC program manager at the Department of Children Youth and Families, and spoke with The Center Square about the changes resulting from Senate Bill 5908, which took effect Thursday.

“Prior to this law, if a young person wanted to stay in extended foster care, they had to meet federal eligibility requirements, which are going to school, working part time, working on barriers to employment, or having a medical condition that stopped them from being able to do that,” McLaughlin. “If a young adult was not doing one of those categories, there was the possibility of the state asking to discharge them from extended foster care.”

Extended foster care is now a no-discharge program.

“We took a program that had low barriers but still some barriers, and this bill’s intent is to remove all those barriers so that a higher percentage of young people decide to stay,” McLaughlin noted.

Natalie Green, assistant secretary of child welfare at DCYF said in a news release, “This is especially important for youth documented as disadvantaged and overly represented due to racial disproportionality/disparities in the child welfare system.”

More than 650 young adults are currently receiving services through EFC, a number that is likely to increase because of the new law, as young adults won’t be required to be going to school or working to receive the benefits.

“They get $860 dollars a month to help them live independently,” said McLaughlin. “It could be on their own in an apartment or with friends; they could be in a dorm, there are many different places they could be living.”

During a February House Human Services & Early Learning Committee hearing on the bill, DCYF social worker Colleen Stark-Bell raised concerns about removing eligibility requirements.

“It’s very troubling to me to remove eligibility criteria,” she said. “I think from a developmental perspective, we really need to think about what that can mean for some of these youth.”

Stark-Bell also raised concerns about the foster care system in Washington already being overwhelmed with cases.

“We know that the youth that would come into this program are some of those with the greatest needs. We are already being crushed with caseloads that are unmanageable,” she said. “We can’t help these youth unless we have support.”

On the DCYF website page for EFC, the only reference to eligibility is listed as “To be eligible for the Extended Foster Care program, you must be dependent on your 18th birthday and agree to voluntarily engage in the program. As of June 6, 2024, there are no additional requirements to participate.”

Language in the bill also says DCYF must make incentive payments, in addition to the supervised independent living subsidy, beginning July 1, 2025. Incentive payments would be given to youth in extended foster care who are working or going to school.

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