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California’s AB 12: Historic Step Toward Helping Foster Youth Attend College, But Much Work Ahead
By Leecia Welch

Five months ago, California embarked on historic expansion of its foster care system. The Fostering Connections to Success Act, known as AB 12, took the enlightened step of extended foster care benefits to youth between 18 and 21. Many young people have begun to reap the benefits of the law, but significant obstacles remain. AB 12 could transform the educational opportunities and supports available to transition age foster youth, but a more work must be done to realize the law’s rich potential.

Higher Education and Life Outcomes

Numerous studies show a direct correlation between higher education and increased financial earnings and stability.i According to National Center for Educational Statistics data, adults age 25 to 34 with at least a bachelor’s degree earned, on average, 61 percent more than those with only a high school diploma or GED.ii

Unfortunately, foster youth, because of the many obstacles they face, don’t do well in school. About 75 percent of youth in foster care perform below grade level, and 80 percent have had to repeat a grade in school.iii By the 11th grade, only one in five foster youth is proficient in English and one in 20 is proficient in math.iv Less than half of California’s foster youth (49 percent) graduate from high school or receive a GED.v In addition, only about 20 percent of foster youth go on to postsecondary education, and 5 percent or less of those ultimately earn a

Can AB 12 change this discouraging landscape? Studies indicate that extending foster care benefits can have a significant impact on higher education enrollment rates. A 2007 study revealed that former foster youth in Illinois had much higher rates of college attainment than their peers in Wisconsin and Iowa. This difference was attributed to the fact that Illinois, unlike the other two states, allowed youth to remain in foster care until they turned 21.vii One of the study’s co-authors said that “allowing youth to remain in care [until age 21] is associated with a doubling of college degree attainment.”viii

Extending Foster Care Benefits Beyond Age 18

In 2008 the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Actix became law. Among other things, this landmark federal legislation extended foster care eligibility from age 18 to 21, and directed more educational supports to foster youth.

Significantly, the Act afforded state and county child welfare agencies, beginning in October 2010, the option of receiving Title IV-E funding to support youth age 18 to 21 who are in foster care placements. Prior to that time, federal funding generally came to a halt when a youth turned 18.

California is at the forefront of state efforts to expand foster care benefits to youth over 18. The Fostering Connections to Success Act, known as AB 12, was signed into law on September 30, 2010, and was subsequently amended by AB 212. The portion of the law extending foster care benefits beyond age 18 went into effect on January 1, 2012. The nearly 5,000 youth who age out of California’s foster care system each year stand to benefit.x Ten other states and the District of Columbia are at various stages in the process of extending Title IV-E funding to youth over 18.xi

Rather than immediately extend eligibility until age 21 for all foster youth, AB 12 adopted a phased-in approach:

  • As of January 1, 2012, youth could participate in extended foster care until age 19.
  • Beginning on January 1, 2013, youth can participate until age 20.
  • Subject to legislative approval, beginning on January 1, 2014, youth can participate until age 21.

AB 12 does not require youth to remain in foster care after they turn 18; their participation is voluntary.xii

The timeline above means that youth who turned 18 in 2011 and were in foster care as of January 1, 2012, are eligible for extended benefits. However, depending on county policy, they might lose eligibility for the period of time they are 19 in 2012. They could then petition the juvenile court to reenter foster care on January 1, 2013, but only for the period of time they are 20 in 2013. Over 2,100 foster youth will turn 19 this year; it is not known how many will lose their extended foster care benefits under county policy.xiii However, a legislative fix that would address this gap is in the works.

What makes a foster youth eligible for AB 12 benefits? He or she must:

  1. Have an order for foster care placement on his or her 18th birthdayi;
  2. Agree to continue under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court as a non-minor dependent or ward;
  3. Satisfy one of the five participation requirements (below); and
  4. Agree to live in a supervised placement that has been licensed or approved.ii

The five participation requirements are:

  1. The youth is completing high school or an equivalent program (such as one leading to a GED).
  2. The youth is enrolled at least half-time in a college, a community college, or a vocational education program.
  3. The youth is participating in a program or activity designed to remove barriers to employment (this is the “safety net” category).
  4. The youth is getting paid for employment of at least 80 hours per month.
  5. The youth is unable to meet one of the above requirements because of a medical condition verified by a health practitioner.iii

Eligibility may be suspended if any of the following occurs:

1. The youthiv requests to be discharged from foster care.v

2. The juvenile court finds that the youth is not complying with a reasonable plan to meet one of the five participation requirements.

3. The youth is not living in a supervised foster care

4. The youth joins the military or gets married.vii

AB 12’s Promise and Potential

AB 12 could have a huge and unprecedented impact on educational opportunities for foster youth. There is the obvious benefit of giving youth financial support as they make the difficult transition to adulthood. Beyond that, AB 12 incentivizes education through two of its participation conditions; expands available housing options; and provides youth with case management support and other connections that enhance academic opportunity.

As we have seen, two of AB 12’s participation requirements focus on education. The law could keep many foster youth, who in past years had to consider the financial consequences of being “aged out,” from dropping out of high school or forgoing college.

Guidelines issued by the California Department of Social Services (DSS) have made AB 12’s education requirements easier to satisfy. Youth can meet the “completing high school or GED” participation mandate in a variety of ways. They can attend high school (public, private, or alternative/continuation), take special education classes, do independent study, be home-schooled, or attend adult school (for a GED).xiv

To meet the higher education participation requirement, youth need only be enrolled at least half-time, which generally consists of six course units.xv They need not be formally admitted to an institution. Youth who need to take remedial courses as a prerequisite to enrollment will also qualify, as long as they are taking the part-time equivalent of two courses.xvi A youth enrolled in only one course falls under the safety net category (see above).

Expanding Housing Options

Providing youth with a safe and stable place to live is a crucial goal of AB 12. To be eligible for AB 12 benefits, youth must agree to reside in a supervised placement that has been licensed or approved. Examples include a foster family home, relative placement, placement with a non-related extended family member, and transitional housing.

Importantly, AB 12 specifies two other placement options: a supervised independent living placement (SILP) and a Transitional Housing Program-Plus-Foster Care (THP-Plus-FC). SILP placements, which may include dormitories, room and board arrangements, and shared apartments, must be approved by the case worker. THP-Plus-FC is a transitional housing program designed “to offer more frequent and intensive services for [non-minor dependents] than other placement options.”xvii It’s designed to serve youth who aren’t ready for the independence that comes with a SILP placement.

AB 12 restricts group home placements to youth who are finishing high school within that academic year or for whom the placement is a short transition period. Once a youth graduates or turns 19, group home placement is prohibited unless he or she has a medical condition and will be transitioning to an appropriate system of care.xviii

Unfortunately, implementation of the housing mandate has been rocky. THP-Plus-FC placements are in fact on hold, because DSS has not developed statewide approval standards and a rate structure. The delay in rolling out these placements threatens the success of AB 12; more than 2,000 foster youth who are living in group homes and who will graduate from high school or turn 18 this year will need another place to live.xix Many of these youth have been placed in group homes because other options, such as foster home or placement with relatives, weren’t available. If they aren’t ready for a SILP placement, they may need the structure and additional supports that comes with a THP-Plus-FC.

The news get worse. The THP-Plus-FC option has been jeopardized altogether by California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent proposal to give county child welfare agencies the discretion to use THP-Plus-FC funding for other purposes.xx

Without a set of appropriate and attractive housing options, youth may decide that staying in foster care is more trouble than it’s worth. Others may have their educational plans disrupted due to placement instability. Such disruptions could prolong the time it takes to complete a degree, thus defeating one of the principal purposes of AB 12.

Bolstering Case Management

Another key way AB 12 enhances the educational opportunities of foster youth is by providing ongoing case management support. All youth in foster care must have a Transitional Independent Living Case Plan that gets updated every six months and includes a Transitional Independent Living Plan (TILP). In addition to listing the young person’s goals, it must also address “services that will assist the foster youth in meeting one of the participation criteria for eligibility.xxi Under DSS guidelines, it’s the case manager’s responsibility to help youth maintain AB 12 eligibility.”xxii TILP goals must be developed and updated in collaboration with the youth.xxiii

Caseworkers must conduct monthly face-to-face visits with their foster youth clients.xxiv This requirement applies even when the client no longer lives in his or her county of origin.xxv Counties can ask other counties or states for assistance in supervising the youth, but such assistance is discretionary.xxvi When other states are unwilling to help with monthly visits, other arrangements, such as contracting with a private agency, must be made.xxvii

Once again, implementation is an open question. Whether counties will be able to effectively implement the case management standards for the thousands of youth in foster care remains to be seen. The costs, challenges, and needs of this population will likely strain the capacities and caseloads of many localities. Given the immense fiscal challenges facing California and the uncertainty created by the realignment of child welfare services, it’s unclear whether counties can provide transition age youth with the support and connections they need to succeed in school.

Complementary Bills

Currently, two key bills that could facilitate the implementation of AB 12 are making their way through the California legislature. AB 1712 would transfer the approval process for THP-Plus-FC providers from the counties to DSS. This could speed the development of more THP-Plus-FC placements. However, in addition to passing AB 1712, lawmakers need to reject Governor Brown’s proposal to make the counties’ development of THP-Plus-FC placements discretionary. Failure to take either action would endanger, now and in the future, foster youths’ access to the housing options envisioned by AB 12.

AB 1712 would also address the funding-gap issue for foster youth who turn 19 this year. The bill would allow 2,100 youth to continue receiving extended foster care without gaps in funding. Currently, youth in counties that have not allocated general funds to pay for gap-filling benefits face an uncertain future.

There’s also AB 2093, the Foster Youth Higher Education and Support Act of 2012. Under that bill, community colleges, CSU campuses, and UC campuses would be asked to designate a program coordinator “to provide comprehensive support to students who are current or former foster youth.”xxviii Passage of AB 2093 would link foster youth with targeted higher-education programs and services.

Successful AB 12 implementation also requires adequate funding of the extended mandatory case management services to which youth are now entitled. Without funding and services to ensure that the law’s educational, housing, and other supports are in place, many youth will at best be treading water, and at worst drop out of care altogether.

Looking Forward

Most teenagers rely on their families not just for financial support but also for help planning their future and learning to be self-sufficient. Young people who are aging out of foster care, and who may have experienced years of instability and trauma, also need these things, and sometimes much more.

AB 12 was driven by the notion that the benefits to society of supporting foster youth until they reach 21 substantially outweigh the costs. Those benefits are tangible: more education leads to increased earning capacity. Developing the infrastructure to support foster youths’ higher education and vocational training is thus crucial and urgent. Properly implemented, AB 12 can take California’s foster youth, and the rest of the state’s population, in a positive, empowering direction.

Leecia Welch is a Senior Attorney at NCYL, focusing on foster youth education and child welfare litigation.

  1. Realizing the Promise of AB 12: Recommendations for Improving Higher Education Outcomes for Foster Youth, Policy Brief (John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, San Francisco, CA), April 2011, at 2, citing the 2008 Population Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. The Condition of Education: 2007, Compendium (National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.), June 2007.
  3. Education of Foster Youth in California, Presentation (California’s Legislative Analyst Office), 2009.
  4. Understanding Foster Youth Educational Outcomes: Comprehensive Supports Throughout Foster Youths’ Lives Result in Better Outcomes, Special Edition Insights In-Depth (California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership), Vol. V, Fall 2011, at 8, citing Kristine Frerer, Lauren Sosenko, et al., Ready to Succeed: An exploration of secondary and postsecondary educational outcomes for foster children in California (Four County Study), 2011.
  5. Exit Outcomes of Youth Aging Out of Foster Care, Quarterly Statistical Report (California Department of Social Services, Sacramento, CA), October-December 2009.
  6. Thomas R. Wolanin, Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth: A Primer for Policymakers, Report (The Institute for Higher Education Policy, Washington, D.C.), December 2005.
  7. Amy Dworsky & Mark Courtney, Does Extending Foster Care Beyond Age 18 Promote Postsecondary Educational Attainment?, Policy Brief (Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL), March 2010.
  8. Mark Courtney, Amy Dworsky & Clark Peters, California’s Fostering Connections to Success Act and the Costs and Benefits of Extending Foster Care to 21, Report (Partners for Our Children, Seattle, WA), March 2, 2009, at 11.
  9. Public Law 110-351.
  10. Understanding AB 12 for Postsecondary Educational Professionals: The Top 10 Things You Need to Know, Trainer’s Guide (California Department of Social Services), February 22, 2012, at 3.
  11. See Daniel Heimpel, Life on the Bubble, Chronicle of Social Change, April 24, 2012, See also
  12. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11400(z), 388(e), 366.31(c).
  13. See Daniel Heimpel, Life on the Bubble, Chronicle of Social Change, April 24, 2012, It’s unclear how many of California’s 58 counties will use their general funds to support these youth during the gap. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, and Orange counties will be covering the cost, while Contra Costa is not. Other counties are in the process of developing their budgets.
  14. All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services, Attachment A (Oct. 13, 2011).
  15. Id., Attachment A.
  16. Id.
  17. All County Letter 11-77 from California Department of Social Services (Nov. 18, 2011), at 5-6.
  18. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 16501.1(c)(1).
  19. See Amy Lemley, Sacramento, We Have a Problem…, John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, April 16, 2012,
  20. Amy Lemley, Decade of Progress Threatened by THP-Plus FC Proposal, John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, May 8, 2012,
  21. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 16501.1(f)(16)(A).
  22. All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services (Oct. 13, 2011), at 19.
  23. Id. at 13.
  24. Id. at 19.
  25. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11403(f)(1), 16501.1(f)(4); All County Letter 11-69 at 16.
  26. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11403(f)(1), 16501.1(f)(4); All County Letter 11-69 at 16.
  27. All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services (Oct. 13, 2011), at 17.
  28. AB 2093 – Skinner, Foster Youth Higher Education and Support Act of 2012, Fact Sheet.

i. Youth need not be physically in placement to be eligible; eligibility extends to both youth who are awaiting placement and those who are on runaway status. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 11400(v)(1); All County Letter 11-61 from California Department of Social Services (Nov. 4, 2011); All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services (Oct. 13, 2011).

ii. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11400(v), 11403(b), 11402. Youth also have to sign an agreement specifying these obligations, meet with their social worker or probation officer each month, and attend six-month review hearings. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 303(d), 11400(u); All County Letter 11-61 from California Department of Social Services (Nov. 4, 2011); Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 366.3(n), 391(c)(2).

iii. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 11403(b); All County Letter 11-61 from California Department of Social Services (Nov. 4, 2011); All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services (Oct. 13, 2011).

iv. AB 12 refers to youth who are receiving extended foster care benefits as “non-minor dependents.”

v. Youth who choose to exit care have the option of reentering care by signing a Voluntary Reentry Agreement. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11400(z), 388(e), 366.31(c).

vi. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 11403(e), 391(c).

vii. All County Letter 11-69 from California Department of Social Services (Oct. 13, 2011).