Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Using What We Know to Better Support Transition-Aged Youth in Foster Care

Written by Jennifer Pokempner, senior attorney, Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia, PA

The transition to adulthood is a time of great potential for all young people, but young people in foster care face increased barriers to a successful transition. It is in our power to build a system that provides equitable and effective support to young people in care as well as to youth and families who need not enter the child welfare system in the first place.

Here are three ways our child welfare and social support systems can be revamped to better serve transition-aged youth using what we know and what young people have told us they need to thrive.

Preserve, protect, and develop relationships. First and foremost, youth need family, healthy relationships, and a support network to make a successful transition to adulthood. The financial and emotional support of family is critical during the transition years. Our service system must be centered on protecting and developing these vital relationships for transition-aged youth. Investments to support these principles include the following:

  • Increasing federal and state funding investments in prevention and family strengthening to keep young people out of the system. This step is needed to address systemic inequities and effectively serve families.
  • Increasing the federal share in permanency services. We know a lot about what works to achieve permanency—intensive family preservation services, enhanced support for kin, and family finding and engagement. These investments can be a catalyst to creating a new norm of permanence for youth and a dramatic decline in aging out.
  • Committing federal resources to postpermanency services so permanency is sustained. These services should be core components of all permanency plans, including reunification, kinship, and adoption. Providing permanency subsidies, Chafee after care, and education and training vouchers to all permanency arrangements would go a long way to increase permanence, promote equity, and spur successful transitions to adulthood.
  • Preparing and supporting the involvement of young people in their permanency planning. This is an essential activity, and federal and state policies can support engagement and make us all accountable for meaningful engagement. 

Empower and share power with young people. There is broad consensus that meaningful youth engagement is not just respectful of young people but also is effective on an individual and systems level. Young people deserve to play an active role in the decisions impacting their lives and to receive support to do so. Engagement should increase and decision-making power should also shift to young people as they age, set goals, and make decisions about their lives. Young people must play a central role in designing and implementing services for transition-aged youth for them to be effective. This includes the following:

  • Increasing requirements around youth involvement in case planning and court and providing the federal funding support to make this feasible. The federal government can clarify that title IV-E funds can be used to support engagement activities, including hiring young people.
  • Building agency culture that values lived experience. This can be achieved by implementing recruiting and hiring processes that create opportunities at the state and federal levels.
  • Requiring child welfare systems to have well-supported and compensated advisory boards made up of individuals with lived experience and who have a meaningful role in decision-making about agency policy and practice. It is critical that these advisory boards represent the racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity of youth in care.
  • Requiring the development of mechanisms for young people to provide feedback about the services and treatment they receive. It is also critical to make this feedback matter to outcome measurement.

Reimagine and rebuild transition services to include a continuum of supports and resources for young people until at least age 26. Parenting trends and social science provides ample support that the transition to adulthood lasts into a young person's mid-20s. If we want to support young people with experience in foster care in their transition to adulthood, they should be able to rely on an array of supports during this phase of their lives. We can draw on lessons learned, such as the following, from Chafee programming and extended care to guide this reimaging:

  • Services should be voluntary and low barrier, received as a matter of right, and not conditional.
  • The service array should include a range of living arrangements, services, and resources, including direct financial assistance, academic and employment support, parenting support, service navigation, and peer support. Young people should be supported in setting their goals and have access to caring adults, coaches, specialists, and community members to help navigate challenges.
  • This array should include a revamped version of our current "extended foster care" program but also provide young people the option to receive comprehensive services in after care. Services should be available to youth who have achieved permanency and those at risk of entering the system.
  • We can fund this comprehensive service array through a combination of restructured title IV-E and Chafee funds along with leveraging and creatively braiding several federal funding streams and programs like the Foster Youth to Independence initiative.

We have a lot of work to do to reenvision a child welfare system that provides young people what they need as they transition to adulthood and makes room for them to lead the redesign. The implementation of the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, included in division X of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which provides critically needed assistance for young people during the pandemic, also provides an opportunity to lay the groundwork for transforming transition services. For example, states can use the increase in Chafee funds to provide direct financial assistance to young people, expand housing programs, and engage youth and community-based organizations to provide resource navigation and peer support and coaching. States can begin to build a comprehensive service array that extends to age 26 and that supports young people and families.

Rather than being frustrated by the challenges associated with the national pandemic, we should maximize the opportunity of new federal investments, leverage program innovation, and channel the energized leadership of young people themselves to reimagine and redesign transition services for young people.