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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1It's Not Case Closed; Transitions Take Time

Written by Kaylene Quinones, M.S.W., cofounder, The Bravehearts, and coordinator, BraveLife Intervention at The Children's Village; and Jessica Grimm, cofounder, The Bravehearts 

Transitions are an inherent part of life. From one moment to the next, we may find ourselves in various transitions, such as moving to a new location, changing jobs, or changing the way in which we work. Transitions take time; they are complicated. Transitions elicit a lot of different emotions, ranging from fear to excitement, and transitions can be challenging. The child welfare system is no exception to the waves of transition. In fact, the child welfare system is full of transitions, and in a system so complex it is easy to forget how much transitions affect people and how long transitions take to occur. Transitions happen with policies, management, programs, people, and the youth we serve. And all these transitions affect one another. A change in programming can affect how much support we provide our youth and families. A change in policy can affect how we work with youth and families. Once a youth turns a certain age, they must transition out of the system and to other types of supports. In my experience, not enough attention is given to how we can help each other, and our young people walk alone through the transitions they face. Sometimes the state of constant transition surrounding our system leads to feelings of helplessness or paralysis for all involved. What good is learning a new policy or adapting to a new worker if it's just going to change again in 6 months? But navigating change is also a crucial life lesson—learning to navigate the specific changes we face in child welfare is also an important preparation for dealing with more general changes throughout the rest of our lives.

We have witnessed transitions treated as another step in the process. In fact, in our experience transitions are not just steps, they are the in-between moments that bridge a person's past with their future. During transitions, we should not just be "doing." We should also be contemplating what we must do next. And we must become okay with that plan. There is a change occurring and we are involved in that change. It's about the becoming and not necessarily the doing. For example, a youth aging out of foster care must have a reliable plan in place before all the supports that they have known are gone. It's not just about creating a plan but also about helping the young person be ready to walk into that plan and into action. When youth are not ready, they don't succeed with the plan and become helpless, overwhelmed, and sometimes even homeless. Not being ready is not a physical stance. Rather, it is an internal process of thoughts and feelings that did not complete.

This internal thought and feeling process cannot be ignored when working with youth who are transitioning out of the child welfare system. In our experience, this is the most significant piece of work that must be completed to successfully transition. We have seen many positive changes in the child welfare system, such as policies to make sure youth can enjoy normative experiences, after care services that can bridge the gap between care and independence, and the requirement that the system develop transition plans that are sufficient. We have also experienced and seen too many instances when these transition plans are treated like pieces of paper—a task to complete. Boxes are checked off, the file is closed, and the system moves on, leaving a young person to figure out what to do next and put the pieces together. All this is happening when the youth is at the age of 18 or 21, when few of us were ready to navigate the world on our own. We were told to find employment that provides a living wage; we were told to find affordable housing, and we were asked to identify positive peers. We were definitely not ready! Our suggestion is to approach these transitions with the respect they deserve—as life-altering decision points. As with many of our persistent shortcomings in the child welfare world, we are most likely to fail when we treat transitions as something abstract, things that happen to someone else. Instead, system professionals and leaders should be thinking about what they would want for their own child, family member, or themselves and what supports and guidance they would need under similar circumstances. Aging out happens and will continue to happen. A change in our approach will alleviate the harm.

*The Bravehearts, currently 200 plus members strong, is a group of young men and women who have been in foster care, were homeless, or were incarcerated. The Bravehearts is an independent 501(c)(3) organization supported and mentored at The Children's Village.