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Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004

Providing Better Opportunities for Older Children in the Child Welfare System
Ruth Massinga Peter J. Pecora

Policies and Programs to Support Older Youths in Foster Care

A variety of policies and programs address the needs of older youths in placement, either directly or indirectly.26 For example, the Adoption and Safe Families Act attempts to improve the safety of children, to promote adoptive and other permanent homes for children who need them, and to support families. The Independent Living Initiative and, subsequently, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 provide funding for services to prepare adolescents in foster care for independent living. (See Box 1.) Other services for homeless and emancipating youths include the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Family Unification27 and Youthbuild Programs,28 the DHHS Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth,29 Survivor's Insurance,30 and welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (For a more detailed discussion of major legislation affecting children in foster care, see the article by Allen and Bissell in this journal issue.)

Over the years, a number of programs to help older youths in foster care have been developed. These programs range from special permanency planning efforts to give youths a “forever home”31 to intensive efforts to boost adoptions (such as Project Craft in the late 1970s and early 1980s), as well as pioneering efforts to provide life-skills training and supervised transitional housing.32 Some of these efforts are summarized in Appendix 1 at the end of this article. Such efforts vary widely from state to state, however. Appendix 2 at the end of this article details each state's use of selected tools and strategies for helping youths transition from foster care. All states are using the Chafee funds provided under the Foster Care Independence Act, and about half the states are using two or more other strategies as well.

Despite the plethora of policies and programs, older foster children continue to experience substantial challenges, and foster care agencies struggle to keep older children in stable foster homes, teach them life skills as early as possible, and assist them in thinking seriously about life after foster care. In general, it is impossible to know how well the programs are working because most lack rigorously collected evaluation data.33 Moreover, one challenge of providing a sufficient “dosage” of service is that many youths do not stay in foster care for long; in such cases, ensuring a child's safety may be the only realistic outcome to measure.34 Yet, of the 263,000 children leaving care in 2001, almost 30%— including many older youths—had been in care for more than two years, enough time to have derived some benefit from a social service program.35 The discussion that follows explores two general types of programs for older youths in foster care: (1) programs that promote a sense of permanency within the foster care setting and (2) programs that provide services for transitioning out of foster care.

Services to Promote a Sense of Permanency

Despite the many complexities and controversies surrounding permanency planning, a sense of permanence and stability in a child's living situation is crucial, and its value is well supported by the child development literature and children's rights policy.36 Permanency planning has been defined as the “systematic and continuous process of carrying out a set of goal-directed activities designed to help children live in safe families that offer them a sense of belonging and legal, lifetime family ties.”37 It embodies a family-focused paradigm for child welfare services, with emphasis on providing a permanent legal family and encouraging family continuity for children across the life span.38

The goal of permanency planning is “not to help children live in families—it is to have them rejoin or join families.”39 Foster care is just one part of a larger array of permanency-oriented options, such as remaining with birth families, guardianship, and adoption. Any of these options or others might be appropriate for a particular older youth. According to one expert, every youth transitioning from foster care should have the opportunity to either reestablish an independent legal relationship with his or her biological family, establish a legal relationship with another family, or both. Above all, permanency planning addresses a single—but crucial— question: Who will be this child's family when he or she grows up?

A number of complexities must be addressed when searching for the answer to this question. Services should take into consideration the cultural, legal, and social contexts of the community and should make every effort to connect youths with kin. One strategy for keeping a child connected to family members is through family group conferencing, which draws in relatives and close family friends (“fictive kin”) as a way of more completely exploring caregiving options.40 In the Northwest, workers are trying some creative methods to find caring adults whom foster youths can count on for permanency. The workers are tracking down relatives through Mormon genealogy strategies and Red Cross location methods.41

Meanwhile, the United States continues to experience a high rate of foster care placement—a rate that is not entirely due to the problems of unemployment, drug abuse, and homelessness but is caused, at least in part, by the lack of service alternatives, resources, and creative interventions to meet the unique needs of individual families. The special needs of Native American children and children or color, for example, have been largely unaddressed.42 With respect to services for older children in particular, the U.S. General Accounting Office recently reported that despite the array of available programs, “state and local administrators agree that there are not sufficient resources to provide the full range of services needed for youth, even if youth gained access to them all.”43

Many child advocates and researchers fear that continued low levels of funding and problems in service delivery will interfere with the important objective of achieving permanency for children.


In fact, many argue that the focus on permanency planning, creative service alternatives, and child stability has not resulted in family strengthening, more focused services, or the prevention of unnecessary foster care placements. Staff training, supervision of youth, program consistency, and the level of resources have all fallen short of the task. After almost two decades of steady erosion in federal funding, most of the nation's social service and public-assistance programs have received only small increases in their funding levels. More recently, though the needs of families and children have increased, the programs providing services have been battered by federal, state, and local budget cuts.

As a way of responding comprehensively and thoughtfully to the gaps and confusion in this service area, some agencies are preparing comprehensive program frameworks that outline key philosophical principles, intended key outcomes, and preferred program strategies to achieve desired outcomes. Although the intent is to promote intervention and training strategies that are grounded in theory, evidence-based, culturally competent, and tailored to the community, much work remains to adequately address these challenges.45

Services for Transitioning Out of Foster Care

An analysis of states' transition-service-related policies indicates that the scope and quality of services provided to current and former foster youths, and the eligibility requirements for these services, vary widely.46 In general, states provide minimal and varied assistance with education, employment, and housing, while fewer states provide needed health and mental health services or assistance in developing support networks. For example, less than one-third of states have expanded Medicaid coverage to youths ages 18 to 21, but more states provide daily-living-skills instruction and financial assistance. Though most states provide mentoring services, they generally do not utilize other methods of enhancing youth support networks. Thus, although the range of independent living services has increased compared with a few years ago,47 much more could be done to improve these programs. Key barriers states have identified include staff turnover, transportation problems, lack of coordination among the various services, limited involvement of foster parents, lack of youth employment opportunities, scarcity of housing and supervised living arrangements, lack of affordable educational services, and a shortage of mentors/ volunteers.48 Two key transition services needing further emphasis—mentoring and life-skills training— are discussed further below.

Mentors can be an important resource for youths transitioning from foster care. A 1995 study of pregnant and parenting African American teenage girls defined natural mentoring relationships as “powerful, supportive emotional ties between older and younger persons in which the older member is trusted, loving and experienced in the guidance of others.”49 The study found that youths who had natural mentors reported lower levels of depression than those who did not have such relationships, despite comparable levels of stressors and resources across both groups. Young mothers with natural mentors were more optimistic about life and the opportunities educational achievement could provide and were more likely to participate in career-related activities.

Other recent reports on adolescent development indicate that for youths with multiple risks in their lives, a caring relationship with at least one adult (regardless of whether that adult is the youth's parent) is one of the most important protective factors.50 For example, a recent Child Trends research brief reported that teens that have positive relationships with adults outside of their families are more social and less depressed and have better relationships with their parents.51 Further, having a positive relationship with an adult is associated with better social skills overall, due to the development of the trust, compassion, and self-esteem that accompany such relationships. In another research brief, Child Trends reported that youths participating in mentoring programs exhibited better school attendance, greater likelihood of pursuing higher education, and better attitudes toward school than did similar youths who did not participate in mentoring programs.52 Further, youths in mentoring programs were less likely than their nonmentored peers to engage in such problem behaviors as hitting someone or committing misdemeanor or felony offenses. The evidence was somewhat mixed, however, with respect to drug use,53 and no differences were identified with respect to other problem behaviors such as stealing or damaging property, cheating, or using tobacco. Nevertheless, overall, the research suggests that mentors can provide needed connections and supports for older children in foster care.

Life-Skills Training
Life-skills training has been one of the main responses to preparing youths for emancipation, with a wide range of programs springing up around the country. For example, in San Antonio the Preparation for Adult Living program provides youths with a variety of lifeskill supports and experiences to promote successful emancipation—from apartment hunting to volunteer work. (See Box 2.) Other creative solutions provide “scattered site” apartments for emancipating youth, with adult supervision and life-skills training integrated into the programs.54

Other initiatives have focused on creative ways to provide youths with financial skills and supports. For example, in the North Carolina LINKS program, youths transitioning from foster care are given access to various resources, including up to $1,500 a year for housing. (See Box 3.) To promote money-handling skills, youths participating in the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (JCYOI) receive individual development accounts seeded with an initial $100, with the opportunity to earn additional deposits for participating in various life-skills activities. (See Box 4.)

Whether life-skills training programs target key skill deficits and effectively maximize learning is not well known, however, because of a dearth of rigorous evaluation studies and a lack of attention to how these skills are taught. Nevertheless, some preliminary data on key skill areas linked with adult success—such as education, employment, and independent living—are beginning to emerge from long-term foster care alumni studies.55 In addition, the growing implementation of assessment tools such as the Daniel Memorial Independent Living Skills system56 and the Ansell-Casey Life Skills Assessment57 has helped improve the targeting of skills development in these programs.