January 2021 | Vol. 22, No. 1
Written by Jerry Milner
As we transition from 2020 to 2021, the newsfeeds on my phone and the few glimpses of live news I see when passing through an airport applaud the passing of 2020 as one of the worst years in recent memory. We welcome 2021 as a relief from difficulty and suffering and a source of hope that the world will be a better place shortly (although the "shortly" part may be somewhat optimistic).
I agree that we have had overly abundant lumps of coal in 2020.
Although I did not suffer the travails of illness and loss that so many did, I know those who did, and I suffered in less mortal ways like many of you.
With very little forewarning, the joy of my work and my life—being present in the child welfare workspaces across the country; meeting face to face with youth, children, and parents with lived expertise; sitting with agency and program staff serving families every day; encouraging and supporting attorneys and judges in our child welfare court system, service providers, advocates, and countless others—came to an abrupt halt, like crashing into a wall at full speed. My ability to connect to the field suddenly became a casualty of a travel ban.
My friends and colleagues who sustain and nourish my soul, emotions, intellect, and mind became fuzzy images on Zoom with the same familiar backgrounds depicting their new workspace environs.
Across the country, there were more hurricanes than ever on record, and it seemed that each trip I made home from DC to Florida involved prepping for the latest hurricane to cross the Gulf and land on the southern shores that I call home.
There were prolific wildfires everywhere and the losses were unfathomable. Even in my slice of paradise in the Florida panhandle, I was forced to evacuate my home in the face of an encroaching wildfire with only minutes notice and to watch from a safe vantage point as the orange wall came closer and closer. That experience of having maybe 5 minutes to gather whatever I could take from my home was a sobering reminder of what so many of our children in foster care experience as a normality in their lives of moving and transitioning.
Apart from my own selfish frustrations with 2020, our families, children, and youth in child welfare suffered immensely more.
Those who have long been disproportionately represented in child welfare—Black, Indigenous, and poor people of all races—were unsurprisingly affected disproportionately by the ravages of the pandemic through loss of jobs, their inability to continue to work remotely, their reliance upon public transportation, their inability to remain at home with their children when schools closed, among other things.
Our youth in foster care, already fragile from the losses and disruption that led them to foster care, suffered increased social isolation, mental health concerns, and loss of essential supports to help them move forward.
Many of our youth from the foster care system became homeless when their college dorms closed, experienced food insecurity when college dining halls closed, and lost access to essential technology that allowed them to maintain some semblance of normality and connection. Many youth were "emancipated" from foster care during this incredibly difficult period with few options for providing for themselves.
Children in foster care and their parents experienced reductions in face-to-face time, which is so essential to their well-being and healthy development, along with delays in reunifications, adoptions, and other outcomes that might have given them a bit of stability and belongingness.
It has been amazingly difficult to see these things happening and made worse by the pandemic. But this is not unique to the pandemic, since some version of these things happens routinely in our child welfare system.
However, along with the lumps of coal 2020 brought us some precious gifts as well that may serve us as we transition to post-2020.
Personally, I had the resilience and resources to withstand the frustrations and losses. In the end, I was not blown away by a hurricane, and an unexpected wind blew the wildfire in a slightly different direction at the ultimate moment. While my home was spared, others' homes were not. I did not contract the virus, although I had dear friends who died of it.
These humbling occurrences increased my empathy for others and gave me renewed appreciation for health, wellness, and, sometimes, just plain good luck. They led me to a regular practice of meditation that is slowly allowing me to see my life apart from my own personal needs and desires and as part of a broader sea of humanity for whose well-being we all have a shared responsibility.
As a response to the lack of travel ability, we brought together hundreds of youth with lived expertise in a dozen and a half virtual town halls and roundtable discussions and assured them that their voices had not been silenced by a raging virus. I believe that these discussions have set the course for a more institutionalized vehicle for regularly soliciting the voices of those who know our system firsthand and have created the expectation that they will be at our table.
The crisis has made people aware of existing shortcomings in our system that can guide the way to the future. We did not just begin allowing 20,000 youth in foster care to leave at age 18 or 21 without permanency in their lives during COVID. We've been doing it for years. If COVID has helped more people to understand what that means, then that is a gift.
And I believe that it has, in fact, helped in that way. Recently, Congress passed the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, recently enacted as division X of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. Among other provisions, the act prohibits states from emancipating youth from foster care during the crisis simply due to attaining a certain age. At the state level, a number of governors issued executive orders prohibiting the "emancipation" of youth from foster care due to age during the crisis. These are good things, but if we can do them for the duration of COVID, why can they not be permanent so that we end this inhumane practice? First steps are always necessary.
During the height of the pandemic, the Children's Bureau, in collaboration with Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America and with the support of other federal child- and family-serving agencies, launched the most substantial and tangible effort thus far to create a child and family well-being system: Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being. This work offers the promise of creating a true, proactive, and community-based family support system that operates in stark contrast to the harsh child welfare system that we know so well.
Many people in our country have paid and continue to pay painful and difficult costs for these gifts. If we care about them and their future, and the futures of so many to come after them, our obligation is to not let this moment pass without committing to act on these unexpected gifts. This is our opportunity, and more importantly it is our responsibility.
In 2021, we will transition to new leadership in our country. For those of us in our child welfare system, we must all commit to a seamless, supportive, and collaborative transition and to doing our part, from wherever we may be, to ensure a continuing commitment to the values that we believe in so strongly—the value of families, however we define them, to their children; the value of community to families; the value of support over surveillance; and the value of ensuring that we have an equitable and just way of serving children, youth, and families in need.
We can do it.
We must do it.
Written by David Kelly
That we allow young people to leave foster care without the relationships and sense of belonging that every person needs is clear evidence that we must change child welfare in the United States. It is a glaring and perennial failure that we have come to expect. We've attempted to recast that failure as a natural process. We've created a lexicon for it—couched in the language of coming of age. We've done this as a field for our own comfort—not for the well-being of young people.
The outcome of "aging out" is demonstrative of a system that serves itself more than it does children, youth, and families. It provides an option we invoke when we fail to meet our responsibilities or keep our promises. It is reflective of a larger need to purposely transition away from the system we know.
We've become accustomed to speaking about youth "emancipating" from foster care and "transitioning" to life on their own just as we've become comfortable with separating families without making sincere efforts to help them remain intact.
In my experience as an attorney working with young people leaving care and from the countless conversations I've had with them, this "transition" can be a cause of great trauma. It can involve hastily stuffing everything a young person owns into a garbage bag—an act of despair and utter aloneness. It can result in a young woman living in her car. It can result in young people couch surfing, living on the streets, facing unspeakable exploitation, and worse. Aging out is a pipeline to poverty and poor outcomes.
A few thousand dollars for a housing stipend and life skills classes—at best—are what we arm young people with to face these dangerous realities. This is not so different than handing an inmate leaving prison a bus ticket and a referral to their parole officer. Some luckier young people may have had a transition plan that was marginally more helpful.
How is it we've come to expect and accept this?
It's time to aggressively interrogate the option of aging out. It's time to examine deeply the root causes of how we reach the point where a young person's best or only option is to leave care for life on their own. It's time to interrogate how we've arrived at a place where programs such as Chafee are needed in the first place.
Rather than interrogate aging out, we've institutionalized it.
We are seeing the pain and challenges of disconnection in high resolution during the pandemic, but the pain and challenges have always been present. The recently passed relief funds are desperately needed and will help many young adults. But the financial support and flexibilities it provides is a temporary Band Aid for deep and grievous wounds that we inflicted. They should be made permanent and viewed as the floor of what young adults need and not the ceiling.
The truth is no amount of money or training can replace the need for family and belonging, however a young person may choose to define them.
Any of us who have direct experience in the field have met and known young people who transitioned in the hard ways—without the supports they needed and suffered greatly. I am constantly astounded by the strength, resilience, and optimism so many young people possess, especially against all odds and in situations more difficult than I will ever know.
Many of us who have spent time in the field have also known young people who did not overcome the odds and were incarcerated, struggled with poverty, experienced homelessness, or died.
There's one young person in particular who stands out in my mind. I was 26 and fresh out of law school when he appeared in my office at the shelter program. He was a soft-spoken kid, slight, and a bit guarded with jaundiced eyes. He was 18 and had just become a new dad. He was trying hard to pull his life together to be there for his son and needed some help.
Two years later, he was dead from uncontrolled hepatitis.
His death, as far as I'm concerned, was entirely preventable. It was the result of not having the connections, relationships, resources, or supports he needed—after spending years in foster care. He became homeless soon after aging out. Without a stable place to live and regular access to health care, he could not always get his medication or have a place to safely keep it. He died from a treatable disease that many people live full lives with when they receive proper care.
With nowhere to go after turning 18 in his group home—one of many places where he passed his teenaged years—he bounced around and stayed with friends but sometimes stayed in places and with people he did not know. Other times he slept in parks or abandoned buildings. The story is familiar. How could it not be? A small city's worth of young people—20,000—age out of foster care every year in the United States.
Twenty years later, I still have his memorial card.
Although reasons for entering foster care vary, we know neglect is the most common reason and that poverty is nearly always present. We know that Black youth, like the young person I'm remembering, are twice as likely to enter care as White kids.
Every day across the country children are separated from their families. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Other times it likely could have been avoided. In either scenario, state or county officials decide it is not possible for children or youth to stay with their families or caregivers. Professionals decide children would be better off in the temporary care of the government. When we separate families, our promise to children and parents is that we will get them back together as soon as safely possible and, in the interim, keep them safe with a relative or friend or a resource family when kin is not available.
When we separate children from their parents, it causes trauma, even when necessary. Our promise is that removal is a path to promote the child's best interests and well-being.
In our hubris, we have believed systems can do better for children than their own families can.
In our myopia, parents are too often viewed as the problem.
In our thoughts and actions, families are too often viewed as replaceable.
After the young man I'm remembering died, his son went to live with his grandmother—the child's great grandmother. She was the greatest source of support in the young man's life. In the time I knew the young man, he visited her often but could not live with her due to public housing restrictions. Breaking those rules could have caused her to be evicted. The grandmother's ability to care for the child would be temporary. At best, she may be around to care for the little boy for a decade, maybe a little longer.
Over the years I've wondered about that little boy. He'd be 21 now, a year older than his father lived.
In some states, that little boy may now be a young person in extended foster care if the state provides that option and permanency was not achieved.
But everybody has people.
In child welfare, we have a history of failing to remember or failing to assign value to the people children have in their lives. We have a history of not looking hard enough for them and not supporting them when they are before us, whether they are found or step up to care for the child. Recent data tell us less than 50 percent of children who enter foster care are reunited with their families. Data also tell us that only 6 percent of children and youth typically exit foster care to live permanently with relatives other than the ones from whom they were removed. About 8 percent of all children and youth who enter care age out or are emancipated.
I met the young man I am remembering after he had turned 18. I don't know what the circumstances were that led to his placement in foster care so many years earlier. I did know he had a grandmother who loved him dearly and that he loved her. I know her life had not been easy and that she struggled with poverty. I wonder how different both of their lives could have been if support would have been available for the young man to go live with her as a child instead of entering foster care.
That we have a higher percentage of young people who age out than go to live permanently with other relatives is abhorrent; it is a tragedy.
These outcomes reflect our current system's lack of commitment to parents and relatives and ignores their capacities and desire to care for their children.
More equitable distribution and use of the billions of dollars currently spent on child welfare—which are spent mostly on foster care—would help to change this. Funding parity between foster care and kinship care and guardianship assistance would help change this. Investing even a fraction of those billions in families, relatives, and kinship care would make a difference. Helping families, kinship care providers, and guardians with costs associated with raising a child—just as we do with licensed foster parents—would go a long way to stemming the tide of children who enter foster care and never go home and those young people who leave care disconnected.
We should incentivize family preservation, reunification, kinship care, and guardianship instead of adoption alone.
We should never allow poverty and issues such as public housing restrictions stand in the way of a child living with a loving grandmother rather than entering foster care.
A young person who grew up in care should not die 2 years after aging out because of harsh and unstable life conditions.
We should not discharge young adults to lives of poverty and struggle after being their custodians for years.
We should not be so quick to give up on or discount what most children need most—their families.
An aunt or uncle, family friend, maybe even an older sibling may have been able to help had there been resources available to support them. Instead, those resources go to strangers.
People we wrote off long ago or never considered can or could now be viable options.
Of course we'd have less need for foster care and programs like Chafee if we were able to do more to address the conditions too many families are forced to endure—conditions they did not create but must face every day, conditions that exist and are sustained by our structures and systems in ways explicit and implicit.
We must not accept the inevitability of youth aging out of care.
It is a problem we have created.
We must stop viewing older youth as expendable.
We can transition our thinking and our system to a place where aging out no longer occurs.
It begins by supporting families and ending unnecessary separation.
Most industries have byproducts. Child welfare is no exception.
To accept aging out as an unavoidable byproduct of the foster care industry is to perpetuate injustice.
To accept our failure to find permanence and connection for young people—after we have taken it from them and promised better—is unforgivable.
The time for a different way is before us.
Written by David A. Hansell, commissioner, New York City Administration for Children's Services
For far too long, racial disparities have existed in child welfare systems across the country, with Black and Brown families overrepresented at key decision points. The New York City (NYC) Administration for Children's Services (ACS), of which I am the commissioner, has long been focused on this issue. In 2020, the fight for racial justice, and the racially disparate impacts of COVID-19, have transfixed the nation. We at ACS have made an explicit commitment to combat systemic racism and to transition toward a truly antiracist organization.
This commitment is embodied in a robust set of initiatives, both within and outside our organization. We are addressing the sources of racial disproportionality at every step in a family's involvement with the child welfare system. We are adopting a family well-being approach and expanding community-based supports for families. We are working with partners across NYC to reduce unnecessary utilization of the child maltreatment reporting system and increase utilization of alternative support systems. And we are taking a hard look at our organizational culture, policies, and programs and how they must change to further race equity.
The problem begins with dramatic racial disparities in maltreatment reports to the state child abuse hotline. In 2019, 41 percent of reports involved children in families who identified as Black, which is representative of 23 percent of New York City's children. While we want to be alerted to genuine child safety risks, ACS is taking numerous steps to address inappropriate use of the hotline and racial disparity in reports.
We are working hard to reduce families' interaction with the traditional child welfare system by providing community-based resources and support through a primary prevention approach. We support three family enrichment centers in neighborhoods of historically high child welfare involvement to provide parents with a safe and nurturing environment to build social connections and receive concrete resources like food and clothing—both of which are especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic—without ever needing to come into contact with the child welfare system. Our community partnership programs connect families with resources that exist in their communities, independent of ACS. And our child safety campaigns empower parents with information to protect children, like safe-sleep practices for newborns and infants, safe storage of medication that is hazardous to children, and avoiding other household dangers.
Given the disproportionate representation of Black and Brown families in reports to the child abuse hotline, ACS is focused on avoiding unnecessary and inappropriate reporting and increasing awareness of the many alternative ways to provide support to children and families. We know that child welfare investigations are intrusive for families and should be conducted only when safety and risk issues are presented. We are advocating for implicit bias training for mandated reporters. Our child protection borough offices work closely with schools in their local communities that generate large numbers of reports to create alternative strategies to address family needs. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ACS has collaborated with the NYC Department of Education to develop guidance stating that struggles with technology during remote learning, or other COVID-19-related challenges, should not in themselves be treated as child welfare concerns that generate hotline reports. Similarly, ACS and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently issued new guidance to hospitals citywide to make it clear that reports to the child abuse hotline should only be made when there is a reasonable concern about the child's safety and that there are other routes to helping families access services they may need.
For families that come to our attention through a hotline report, we seek to make sure that our response is led by support and services to address the family's needs. ACS's Collaborative Assessment, Response, Engagement and Support (CARES) program enables us to forgo a full child protective investigation when there are no imminent risk or abuse issues and instead collaborate with families to identify services they may need. In 2021, this program will be expanded citywide, which will dramatically increase its capacity to serve families.
When we identify safety concerns, our goal is always to keep children at home with their families when safely possible. In 2020, we implemented a new set of "prevention" programs designed to prevent future risks to children. These programs now offer 10 different service models to families across all parts of NYC and were designed with increased family voice and choice and with an explicit focus on racial equity. They include a range of evidence-based models, as well as community-based, home-grown programs that have proven to be successful. There is strong evidence that ACS prevention services reduce repeated involvement of families in the child welfare system. Families that successfully complete prevention services (and more than 80 percent do) are five times less likely to have another substantiated investigation (one in which there is evidence of child abuse or neglect) in the following 6 months than families that do not complete services. We also know that families feel that they are benefiting from the services. Earlier this year, ACS released the results of its first-ever survey that asked families receiving prevention services about their experiences. Approximately 94 percent of participants said they were happy with the prevention services their families received, and 71 percent of participants said they would recommend these services to a friend and/or family member. Overall, 86 percent of the parents participating in the survey said prevention services helped them reach their parenting goals.
When foster care is temporarily necessary to keep a child safe, we are focused on achieving more equitable experiences and outcomes for all children. We have reduced the number of children in foster care to an historic low in NYC and shortened the time they remain in care. We are increasingly placing foster children with family members and friends instead of with unfamiliar foster parents, which keeps them more closely connected to their families. We have just launched a new initiative—Parents Supporting Parents—that will assign a parent with lived child welfare experience to parents with children currently in foster care. The parent advocates will be crucial allies to empower parents, dismantle bias and oppression in the foster care system, and ultimately help to reunify families.
This work is all essential to transforming our relationships with children and families, but our efforts must start within. To combat systemic racism in the child welfare system and truly become an antiracist organization, we must look internally at our own structures, policies, practices, and implicit biases. And we must listen to the voices of those who have lived experience with our systems. We must walk the walk if we want to build an antiracist culture and empower our staff to fight racial disproportionality in our work.
We have made implicit bias training a requirement for all staff and provide opportunities for difficult but important conversations about race, diversity, and intersectionality. We are expanding the role of parent advocates across our system and work closely with our Parent Advisory Council and Youth Leadership Council. We are partnering with National Innovation Service to conduct an evaluation of our systems and activities as they relate to the racial equity experiences, needs, and priorities of frontline staff, families, and communities and to identify key areas of intervention to drive system-level change.
Racial disparities have been the legacy of the child welfare system, but they do not have to be its future. ACS is focused on placing equity at the center of every decision, policy, and initiative. Working with the entire child welfare community, advocates, families, and communities, we must take every action possible to ensure that our work with children and families contributes to the dismantling of racism in our society.
Written by Alise Morrissey, director of family impact, Children's Home Society of Washington, and a parent ally
Family is at the center of our society—when our families are strong, our communities thrive. If the child welfare system held to this ideal, all actions, budgets, and decisions would be geared toward uplifting and embracing families and building upon their strengths. As a parent who has personally experienced the system and as a professional who has dedicated the last decade of my career trying to change it, I have arrived at a bleak conclusion: The system we currently know is rooted in perpetual bias and stigma toward select members of our community who have fallen on hard times. These individuals have been devalued through bias yet deserve to be treated with dignity, love, and respect. Furthermore, their children did not ask, and do not deserve, to be abruptly uprooted from their homes to be placed in a stranger's care.
Studies show that removing a child from their parents' care causes significant long-term trauma, which is linked to neurological and physiological changes in childhood development. Why do we continue to operate this way amid unfavorable outcomes for children and their parents?
We must stop punitive practices riddled with judgment and blame toward families and transition to a family well-being system that prioritizes keeping families together. After all, by continuing the current cycle, we know that the removal of children from their families can have life-long, devastating impacts in the areas of learning, emotion regulation, and behavior.
We must stop thinking that an infant, child, or youth is better off with strangers rather than seeing their parents for all their worth and working to identify ways to help them through their challenges. We need bold court strategies, such as the Safe Babies Court team, that put families at the core of all decisions and promote their health and well-being.
We need to incorporate proven brain science research on the fundamental benefits of children remaining with their parents during formative developmental years in all federal and state regulations and laws that perpetuate removing every connection a child has to their family and pretending that this is good for them.
We need to ensure states have financial incentives to keep families together, and if a removal is absolutely necessary after all measures of support have been exhausted, we must prioritize relatives and people close to the family as alternative temporary homes to minimize trauma. Additionally, if we could go further and provide more financial support than what strangers receive, I believe this can be the start of real reform for the system.
When reviewing a state's child welfare budget, why do we see a disproportionality low dollar amount going to the biological family in situations where the need is present? We see that the majority of the budget works to promote family separation when a vast number of families are experiencing poverty, which could be mitigated with concrete financial support that helps keep families together. States should receive significant dollars for reuniting families, as opposed to forever separating them; funding should be funneled back to efforts that support keeping families together.
We must also work to promote bold, innovative strategies that aim to dismantle injustices that perpetuate harm for children and families. An example of this effort is the FIRST Legal Clinic, which provides a new parent struggling with a substance use disorder an opportunity to have an attorney who advocates to keep the family together and a parent ally to instill hope in a dark time to help the family remain on track. Additionally, our Parents for Parents program connects parents who have successfully navigated the child welfare system to parents who have recently become engaged with child protective services.
My beliefs stem from my lived experience. I know what it is like to have a baby who was never able to experience staying with her mom at the hospital. I have seen the heartbreak of a family losing its child rather than receiving a show of support to overcome past trauma. I have experienced relatives being passed over and saw how powerless my own mother was in learning she had no legal rights to maintain control of her connection with her granddaughter, as it was at the discretion of the foster family.
I have seen thousands of families going through similar situations and circumstances to what I lived through. I have been in a room with 40 parents who all raised their hand to express that they were told they should never have their children and their children would be better off adopted. I have had professionals across the country hug me after I spoke to a crowd and express that they have seen so many other families let down and that we must unite to stop it.
Why is a transition mandatory? Because I am staring at my 11-year-old and 18-month-old playing with LEGO blocks with huge smiles on their faces. Why are we more special than all the other families that will never be able to experience this because the "system" deemed them unworthy and encompassed punitive practices that broke them down rather than building them up? Why do I hear from youth all over the nation begging for change and from families in hospitals longing to provide their infants with breast milk and ensure their babies can hear the comforting voice of their parent?
As I think about the actions and reactions we need to reform, I am also reminded of so many beautiful people who have spoken life into me and the families I serve, as well as into families across the nation. I am comforted knowing that there are many like-minded individuals who are enthusiastically promoting this needed change.
I love that there are other parents, like myself, who are running or working for parent mentor programs to ensure families succeed. I love that there are agencies across the nation that are uplifting parent and youth voice to ensure cycles can be broken and true change can be everlasting. And I love that I can hold my children every night—I long for others to have the same opportunity.
I am especially thankful for leaders, such as associate commissioner of the Children's Bureau, Jerry Milner, and his special assistant, David Kelly, who have done so much to pave the way for families like mine to find a new way of life. It is now up to all of us to keep the torch lit, to never give up, and to celebrate the sacredness of family.
Written by Laura W. Boyd, Ph.D., owner and chief executive officer, Policy & Performance Consultants, Inc.
As I write this, I am really excited about 2021. Of course, that is easy and obvious given all we have encountered in 2020. We must enter this transition with the hope of an innocent child and with the professional knowledge we have learned. We have a long list of opportunities and not a day to waste.
Leaders learn through their successes and learn even more through their failures. We also learn from the words and works of others. I should be pretty smart in 2021. So should our child welfare system.
As we transition into a new year and a new decade, leaders must take the mantra of a changed world of family care and connections. We have learned the following:
This is what we have learned, and we must build on this foundation.
The year 2020 has given us the knowledge to be successful in child welfare practice in ways beyond the printed manual and state and federal system reviews. We have shown ourselves to be creative in the use of technological tools and community networks, which can free workers anchored to a prescribed workplace and allow for more frequent and personal support to families and caregivers. These are the successes we should build upon.
We must focus on how to involve our community members and services in support of all families and shred the secrecy and isolation of foster care, the shame of poverty, and the terror of homelessness and/or joblessness. This will require courage of leadership to envision new ways of serving families.
Finally, as child welfare professionals, we must add to these tools of "head" and "hands" the most transforming tool: the "heart." It is this heart factor that really sustains us, but we too often forget that.
The work of child welfare personnel is as demanding as health-care workers, first responders, teachers, and title IV-E directors. We get tired, sick, burnt out, and overwhelmed. We, too, have families. Ask yourselves when was the last time you called the family or caregiver whom you know is watching over a child in the hospital with all their heart and prayers; or the grandparent caring for a grandchild and grieving for the destructive decisions of their own offspring? When did you share a "help wanted" notice with a father or perhaps a single mother that pinged your heart and reminded you of that specific person? These questions are not meant to shame or discourage but to remind us that compassion is the heart that keeps the system pumping. When we respond from our heart, we heal; we are revived.
In family-centered treatment (FCT), we have a model that is unique in delivery and backed by a multitude of outcome data regarding the successful preservation and reunification of the families who are struggling the most. Here I will describe some of the tenets that make FCT successful.
FCT uniquely addresses the whole family and the vicarious trauma that each member of the family has experienced and not resolved so as to free their behaviors and choices. The losses, griefs, failures, disappointments, embarrassments, loneliness, and maltreatment that has marked the family members are disclosed, examined, and given a role of insight and hope for the person. This recognition and "reordering" leads to real family change—change in beliefs, attitudes, reactions, and hope going forward. This change is so much more than compliance with service plans or court orders. It empowers the family to move into the future with new competencies for addressing other challenges that come their way.
Through their work in FCT, parents "own" their parts in the family history and dynamics that underpinned the pain, helplessness, and drama that various family members experienced and acted out trying to resolve. Most families complete FCT with an action and a commitment of giving back. As a family, they may choose a project or a community need or service that allows them to give in healthy ways to the support and healing of others. Giving back cements for the family what they've learned, how they can find personal value in new behaviors, how to forgive, and how to show their strength and commitment to being this family.
Not only does the family thrive, but also the heads, hands, and hearts of the provider thrive. This is the future of child welfare practice.
The year 2021 is a real opportunity to heal our children, our families, ourselves, and our system.
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.
Written by Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel, Legal Services of New Jersey, Edison, NJ
The child welfare system needs to commit to the basic and simple principle that securing and supporting families and avoiding removal of children in all cases, except for egregious circumstances, is in the child's best interests. I have a case now where a mom named Anne is struggling with drug addiction and housing instability. She has a 17-year-old son, Jon, who has Down syndrome. During the day, they move from park to park, while in the evenings, they seek help from friends and family for a place to sleep. Jon has been with his mother his whole life. He only knows life with his mother, and although they are living in extreme poverty, he has been able to attend school in person or virtually with her. They have been able to get food and other forms of assistance from friends, family, and food stamps. Jon calls his mom his best friend and refuses to let go of her hand in front of strangers. The agency has been seeking to remove Jon from his mother instead of paying for a shelter or a hotel for them to stay in together. If he were to be removed, the agency would find it difficult to place him in a long-term foster placement. He either would move from foster home to foster home or be placed in a residential treatment center out of state where it would be difficult to have visitation with his mother and kin. He would then age out of the system. The alternative to the agency plan is to support Anne and Jon as a family unit, place them in a shelter or hotel together, assist with housing and welfare benefits, and provide the entire family with treatment services. Living in poverty and struggling with locating housing and appropriate treatments has definitely been difficult for Jon and Anne. However, the alternative—the removal and separation of Jon from his mother—will likely be much more devastating and traumatic for both of them. Besides losing her son to the system, Anne will lose access to family services and entitlements as she will now be considered as a single adult instead of a mother-and-child unit. There will be limited options for care and support for Jon as a young disabled adult who has aged out of the system. How will Jon be able to support himself?
Data and research show that taking a child from their parents is perhaps the most traumatic intervention we can impose on children and should be avoided when possible. We also know from the experiences of children who were removed and reunited with their parents that the actual separation, stranger foster placements, and time away from their parents were the most difficult periods in their lives. Created in the spring of 2020, Legal Services of New Jersey's Reunified Youth Foster Forum gives youth formerly in foster care an opportunity to share their unique perspective on the needs of youth while in foster care, in particular what they believe families need to prevent unnecessary removals and expedite reunifications. These youth successfully reunified with their families after traumatic removals, after spending years in different stranger foster placements and experiencing limited visits with their parents and siblings while in foster care. They emphasize the importance of keeping families together and working toward swift reunifications in cases of removal.
One youth, Indira, who entered foster care when she was 13, said the following on the importance of family reunification: "Reunification is what I wished for during my time in foster care. It was painful being separated from my siblings and my mother, and it hurt me trying to hold on to that hope that I had of being reunified with my family." Indira stressed that her mother was not supported by the agency and was shamed for her depression by the court system and caseworkers. She also identified how not having the "perfect house" delayed reunification and that the agency would not financially assist her mother to locate a home for her and her siblings. Why can't state agencies provide direct funding for concrete services to assist in reunification? In New Jersey, statutes provide and fully empower the agency to assist with housing for parents and other needs to expedite reunification. However, this does not occur in practice because there is no shift to make securing the entire family a priority. To remove a child first, and only later assist the parent and child separately, fails the entire family.
In the last few years, there has been an effort for more prevention and support and less removal from homes and entry into foster care. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 aims to push funding in that direction. We know that in cases where there are no safety concerns, children are far better off staying with their families than entering foster care. Studies show that children in foster care who age out face extreme hardships, including homelessness, mental health concerns, and addiction, among many other issues.
Post-foster care life is in dire need of solutions to better assist youth who have aged out. One of our reunified youths, Titus, explained he would like "the system to understand what they put children through when they separate them from their families. They need to understand what it is like to separate kids from their parents without providing communication or telling children what is happening." He also believes he should never have been taken and that it took too long to return home.
After removal, children and parents continue to be apart physically for most of the time of the case. Parents and children have different case plans and are on distinct and separate service tracks. For example, in most places, stranger foster parents never meet the birth parents never meet nor assist with visitation or family time. After removal, parents are not typically included in their children's medical appointments while they are in foster care, nor are they involved in their children's school meetings. Parents are not included in the child's daily activities nor involved in any decision-making. The parent's input is not considered nor deemed relevant to their children while they are in foster care. The current system is engineered to separate, not unify and support, families.
In making a shift, we must transition from a surveillance agency narrative to a secure and restore narrative for both parents and children. Children should not be removed from their homes, families, and communities because they are poor nor should they remain separated while the parent is expected to resolve their multigenerational impoverished situation on their own. Yet the current agency surveillance system often lacks the tools to address the root causes of poverty and instead treats those causes with the label of neglect that deepens families' inability to escape from poverty because agency findings can limit employment opportunities. The current system needs to help treat conditions of poverty with individualized services and benefits and eliminate the risk of separation that poor children and families currently face simply because they are poor. Agencies have an affirmative duty to secure families with concrete services that can assist with housing instability and access to mental health and substance use programs without resorting to removal first and then address poverty issues for purposes of reunification. We must transition our child protection agency to an actual family well-being agency and require agencies to provide access to basic needs like housing and medical access.
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.
Written by Rise staff
As the pandemic began this spring and New York City families found themselves confined to small apartments with restless children, trying to home school, short on food, and physically disconnected from friends and family, we witnessed the tremendous creative energy of small community organizations—particularly those led by Black women and women of color. To families and communities under stress, they offered everything from financial support and food delivery to healing workshops on coping with racism, family stress, isolation, and grief. Parents at Rise also came together, checking in on one another by group text and through our buddy system. We saw collective trauma met by collective care.
All of this stood in sharp contrast to the frameworks of individual pathology and reactive intervention that define child welfare. Unsurprisingly, New York City families under stress during the pandemic did not seek help from preventive services overseen by child welfare. Those programs, which rely on hotline calls and court mandates rather than community relationships to fill slots, ran at less than 60 percent capacity throughout the spring.
Calls to abolish the child welfare system grew as 2020 laid bare the racism and social control at the root of family policing. We saw vividly that so many anonymous hotline calls and terrifying investigations are totally unnecessary and that investments in community building can meet families' real needs.
For some, abolition is a scary word. Abolition is a framework that challenges all of us to recognize the failure and even harm of reforms that many of us worked passionately to enact. Abolition also requires radical imagination, hope, and belief that our society can be different, that we can treat one another differently, that we can heal, and that our relationships can become stronger. It requires a belief that a neighbor will provide, that punishment and banishment are not effective solutions, and that White supremacy can be overcome. With hope, commitment, and principled practice, we believe healing is possible.
Rise has been exploring abolition as a vision, strategy, and healing process in the past 2 years, and this has been a transition. We've needed to acknowledge the depth to which we've internalized the precepts of oppressive systems and how oppressive dynamics often go unnamed and unaddressed in all manner of spaces, including at Rise and many nonprofit spaces organizing for freedom from harmful systems. Our transition to "changing everything," as abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it, began with steps to shift our own organizational culture. That has meant naming our values, redistributing power, centering healing, and creating conditions for mutual trust and support.
One constant reminder has been that "small is all." Abolition is not just about toppling systems but also cultivating spaces where people feel seen, safe, affirmed, courageous, and respected. If we can build this culture within Rise, we'll know deeply what it takes to create different conditions for families in impacted communities.
This work at Rise is still beginning, but the difference is palpable. We have long named a value within Rise of "resisting system dynamics" of shame, blame, punishment, banishment, and loss of control. More recently, we are leaning more deeply into our value of "passion and love in the work."
Relationships that cultivate love and joy can be a powerful change mechanism for strengthening communities. Just as we're beginning to see how "credible messengers" and "violence interrupters" can create safety instead of police presence, parent peer support and advocacy can come to replace system interventions.
This winter, Rise will begin holding "community conversations"—intentional spaces for parents to begin a radical reimagining of what family and child well-being actually looks and feels like. These will be opportunities to connect, heal, imagine, and build power together. They will be part of the early steps toward mobilizing parents around an abolitionist parents' platform for New York City.
This transition of shifting our culture and vision has not been easy. Abolition isn't mapped out, especially not abolition of family regulation. Luckily, we have practitioners, organizers, and activists ahead of us who have thought deeply and tried new things and are sharing their knowledge. Luckily, we are a team that has always been building the plane while we fly it. Luckily, we recognize how critical it is to activate our abolitionist imaginations to transform a society that relies on punitive justice.
In New York City, our devastating spring offered a glimpse of what's possible if we begin to realign city spending and move dollars into community supports that operate from a radically different perspective than child welfare. Clearly, we can better shield parents and children from stress by meeting material needs, building connection, supporting joy, and working toward liberation.
Everyone working in child welfare or involved in advocacy needs to reckon with abolition—beginning with learning what it really means (and there are many helpful lists and guides out there). Of course, transition includes sorting your losses. It may require a loss of power and influence. It may feel like a threat to identity. But no one believes our current system works. All of us need to open ourselves to discomfort. Abolition asks us to stretch and grow.
Written by Keri Richmond, executive director, FosterStrong, and child welfare reform advocate
How can we ensure young people transition from the trauma of foster care to claiming triumph in their lives?
Six years ago, at a retreat for foster care alumni, I was asked to create a visual of my life story using magazines and a poster board. In the end, I created a collage of photos from the fall, winter, spring, and summer in the shape of a clock. This felt like the most accurate representation of my life story—a series of transitions from one season to the other, some lonely, dark, and difficult and others renewing, abundant, and beautiful.
Isn't that what life is, a series of transitions from one season to the next until eventually our time runs out? Isn't it true that in the dead of winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees and we are left in the darkness and cold, we can hold on to the truth that "this too shall pass" and there is light on the other side and a promise of growth?
For those who have experienced foster care, transitions are familiar; some transitions are welcomed, some are dreadful, and many are not any choice of our own. We have experienced more traumatic events before our 18th birthdays than most people will in their lifetime. This trauma usually starts before we enter the system and continues after. While we are not solely defined by this trauma, the impact of unhealed trauma is detrimental and can poison our relationships, goals, health, and more.
Unhealed trauma becomes generational trauma.
Generational trauma is like a top-heavy bookshelf that collapses in on itself. If the first person in the family lineage experiences trauma that goes unhealed, this trauma accumulates on the top shelf. As life goes on, this person continually adds the burdens and weight of new trauma. Eventually, this person has children, and as time passes the top shelf gets heavier and heavier until finally it collapses, falling on the generations below. These generations are then left dealing with the consequences of unhealed trauma. Trauma is never fully healed, and we are all works in progress, but it is our responsibility to address it.
One alumnus of foster care and writer said, "Some of us are here to be the change makers in our family system. We're here to end generational trauma and start passing down love instead of pain." This is what generational triumph looks like—the breaking of chains—but for this to be accomplished, we must prioritize healing.
The need for emotional healing is just as critical as our need for oxygen, water, and food. Yet, it seems that when youth are making one of the most crucial transitions in their lives—transitioning from foster care to life on their own—the need for healing and addressing this trauma receives little to no attention. The child welfare system must make this a key priority for our young people.
How can we help young people transition out of care and be equipped to continue to deal with unhealed trauma?
The transition out of foster care looks different for every young person. For some, this transition represents new beginnings, a fresh start, or a sort of "breaking away" from the system's rules and red tape. For others, this transition is isolating, scary, and uncertain. In any instance, what will always stand true is the need for healing. As we move forward, I hope the child welfare system will make it a mission to ensure every transition from foster care to independence is one that leaves a young person supported and equipped to continue healing and embrace triumph after trauma.
Written by Jaquia Wilson, youth advocate and community engagement coordinator, SaySo (Strong Able Youth Speaking Out), Fayetteville, NC
At 15 years old, I never said, "I want to go into foster care and see how it works out." Despite my situation, I didn't want to navigate life with resources instead of a family. After all, those resources had a time limit.
When faced with this path, I chose to own my experience and adapt to it. But while experiencing the transition out of foster care, I quickly realized important changes were needed for the well-being of youth, like me, who unexpectedly entered the child welfare system. I also realized that I had something to say and that I could make space for other young leaders to create change.
With the help of SaySo, an association for youth ages 14 to 24 who are or have been in the out-of-home care system, both young experts with lived experience and professionals are now spearheading this change by urging leaders in the field to not only share the microphone but pass it on and listen.
So, how does this exactly create change? It begins with pondering this question: Who is a child welfare expert?
Some may think a traditional expert in child welfare is a social worker, service provider, or educator. Who's missing in that list, though? Those with lived experience, the real experts in the matter of serving families that our society has excluded. But after all this time, how do we now incorporate these experts into the child welfare system? Well, it's simple.
As discussed in a recent Institute for Family webinar series on the unlearning of child welfare, a concept we're all familiar with puts it in perspective: Businesses consult with their customers to hear feedback about a product or service in order to continuously improve their customers' experiences and/or meet their needs. This exact practice is what's underutilized in our child welfare system. There's a need to encourage stakeholders to engage in honest, safe, and transparent reviews of services provided to those who receive them.
The shift in the way we think makes all the difference in how we serve. Imagine needing glasses, for example. You visit a doctor who says, "Here's the pair you need." You need clear vision, so you take them. But as you go on, you bump into things and hurt yourself because you still can't see.
Eventually, you go back to the doctor and they give you another pair. You leave and the same thing happens. Frustrated and still unable to see clearly, you return to the doctor with little trust they will actually meet your needs—but you try one more time. This time, they finally ask a question: "What do you need in a pair of glasses?" The doctor begins to treat you as the expert in your vision and works with you to find the perfect pair for you.
This scenario is an example of the relationships and experiences most youth aging out of the child welfare system have. Although their needs are unique, a one-size-fits-all level of service is provided. Service providers often wait until a child walks away with the wrong pair of glasses before inquiring about their needs. We, as a child welfare system, need to value the power of experience and be a better service provider to youth by asking them—the experts—what their needs are and meeting them the first time.
Truthfully, change has always needed to occur within our child welfare system. The traditional practices we all know have resulted in youth in foster care transitioning out just as fast as they come in. In fact, 39,210 youth between the ages of 16 and 20 transitioned out of the foster care system in 2018, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Outdated policy and practices have contributed to youth staying in care longer than ever intended.
According to the Child Trends article by Dana Dean Connelly and Elizabeth Jordan, 5 Things to Know About the Transition From Foster Care to Adulthood, "The transition from childhood to adulthood is a challenge in the best of circumstances…It takes a network of strong and stable connections with family, friends, and community to help young people learn and grow into healthy adults, and to support the incredible brain development that occurs during this time."
Then, they ask the question, "But what about young people who have spent some or all of their childhood in foster care?"
Youth are most vulnerable when they are in transition. Most youth may experience additional trauma, such as trust issues, displacement, abandonment, neglect, and confusion—just to name a few. According to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, from 2015 to 2018 we saw a decline in the support transitioning youth received for things like mentoring, special education, academic support, room and board financial assistance, career preparation services, and more.
When they age out with little to no support, they're still expected, under these circumstances, to survive and thrive as healthy humans contributing to society. We cannot expect resilience from our youth while not treating them as the expert voices in improving their own experiences.
Now's the time for stakeholders to change their way of thinking to better serve our youth in vulnerable and transitional areas of life. There's no room for tokenism, adultism, inaction, classism, judgment, or anything that can be an extra barrier to children getting what they need.
There is room, however, to make those we serve the experts in their own experiences—and join them as partners. We can do this, together, by having the much-needed conversations within our communities that help combat the things there's no room for. We can do this, together, by empowering and learning from the youth who are often never named in a room when their stories are told. We can do this, together, by equally supporting one another, stakeholders and families included, to successfully serve the youth in transition.
After all, if they're not at the center of our focus, then who are we really serving?
Written by Carol Wilson Spigner, D.S.W., emerita associate professor/clinician educator, University of Pennsylvania
This article highlights what we know about youth aging out of foster care and the policy and program responses and the challenges that remain.
What do we know?
Often described as "emerging adulthood," the development of the knowledge, skills, and judgement that allows a young person to function as a competent adult takes time. For children in foster care, aging out is driven in part by the legal definition of adulthood. Each year, approximately 20,000 youth in foster care turn 18 and find themselves on the brink of losing the support provided by the foster care system. Many youngsters enter care after the age of 12 for reasons of neglect, experience multiple placements, and are disproportionately children of color.
While these exits from care represent about 5 percent of the children in care on 1 day, the cumulative number of children exiting over time is substantial. In 5 years, approximately 100,000 young people will have exited care. To the extent that these youth are ill prepared for adulthood, they lose and society loses their contributions. In fact, they are likely to exit to circumstances that are similar to the ones that brought them into care. For young people, the outcomes are poor. They are at risk of homelessness. Fifty two percent have completed a high school diploma or GED. Only 3 percent have access to higher education. Their attachment to the workforce may be fragile, and they are at risk of incarceration, drug involvement, mental health issues, and early child bearing. There is increasing evidence that youth who are in care beyond age 18 fare somewhat better. The portion of young people who return to their family experience more stability in terms of housing, access to services, and health care.
What have we done?
Recognizing their vulnerability, a number of policy and program changes have been implemented which include federal funding of state services to prepare youth for independence, use of federal funds for housing and education vouchers, and incentives to states to extend the duration of care to age 21.
Some local housing authorities have developed supportive housing. Several public colleges and universities have provided scholarship programs and supportive services for children formerly in foster care. Selected child welfare programs have intensified their efforts to find permanent homes for these young people by doing an intensive review of all of their significant relationships in the past to see if a permanent connection can be made. Despite these efforts, not all children aging out have access to these services. In fact, some youth find their exits from foster care to be abrupt and unexpected.
New knowledge helps us better understand the emergence of adulthood as a lengthy and complex process, with full adulthood occurring in one's late 20s. Brain science has not only documented the impulsivity of adolescence but also the continued growth of the brain. There is opportunity for recovery from trauma and increased maturity when youth are provided with positive experiences and support. The Youth Thrive Framework has identified protective and promotive factors that are critical to youth development, including youth resilience; social connections; knowledge of adolescent development among parents, caretakers, and professionals; concrete supports; and cognitive and social emotional competence. This new knowledge needs to be the foundation for change.
What have we missed?
The child welfare system has not honored its commitment to safety, permanency, and well-being for these young people. Aging out of foster care is a symptom of system failure. In an effort to respond, additional resources and services have been provided, but we have failed to examine the systemic issues:
The problem of aging out calls for transformation of our system of service. Consistent with many calls for reform, the public investments need to be shifted from placement to community-based, family-focused work. Strategies must be pursued to reduce inequality and to address the needs for housing and food security. This realignment would result in fewer removals and increase access to services that are culturally and psychologically relevant. Given that many of these children come into care as adolescents, we need to deepen our understanding of adolescent development and structure services appropriately.
We need to eliminate aging out. To accomplish this, attention needs to be given to the following:
In addressing this issue, we need both a client and system perspective.
The Children's Bureau created a webpage with the latest information on COVID-19 that includes everyday preventive actions to avoid infection as well as the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how schools, caregivers, and the workforce can prepare and take action for COVID-19.
The Children's Bureau webpage also includes links to additional resources that provide guidance for social workers dealing with families affected by the virus and for caregivers to help them think about how an infectious disease outbreak might affect their family:
The webpage also directs readers to additional relevant resources, including the following:
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (P.L. 116-260) into law on December 27, 2020. The law appropriates funds and provides flexibilities and assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including funds for certain child welfare programs.
Division X of the law, Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, provides supplemental appropriations for the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood (Chafee) program, the education and training vouchers (ETV) program, the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program (PSSF), and the Court Improvement Program (CIP). The law temporarily increases federal financial participation (FFP) for specific programs to 100 percent, includes temporary provisions related to foster care and Chafee programs for older youth, and includes the District of Columbia in the temporary federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP) rate increase enacted in the 2018 Family First Coronavirus Response Act (P.L. 116-127).
Section 3: Continued Safe Operation of Child Welfare Programs and Support for Older Foster Youth
Chafee and ETV Supplemental Funding
Maximum ETV Award Amount
Maximum Age Limitation on Eligibility for Assistance
Programmatic Flexibilities Effective April 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021
Section 4: Preventing Aging Out of Foster Care During the Pandemic
Addressing Aging Out of Foster Care During the Pandemic
Reentry to Foster Care for Youth Who Age Out During the Pandemic
Section 5: Family First Prevention Services Program Pandemic Flexibility
Section 6: Emergency Funding for the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) Program
Section 7: Court Improvement Program (CIP)
Section: 8 Kinship Navigator Programs Pandemic Flexibility
Inapplicability of Matching Funds Requirements
Waiver of Evidence Standard
The Children's Bureau provided information to states, tribes, and courts on January 7, 2021, on the child welfare provisions in division X the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, P.L. 116-260. The link to the recording of the webinar can be found on the Children's Bureau's website.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
On December 27, 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, P.L. 116-260, was signed into law. The law makes continuing appropriations for specified federal agencies and provides flexibilities and assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health emergency. Division X of P.L. 116-260 provides supplemental appropriations for the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood, the education and training vouchers program, the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, and the court improvement program (CIP), among other flexibilities. Sec. 305 of title III of division CC, P.L. 116-260, also makes amendments to extend the authorization of mandatory appropriations for title IV-B, subpart 2, and change the structure of state CIP grants from three grants to one grant.
On January 7, 2021, a webinar was held by the Children's Bureau to provide information to states, tribes, and courts on the child welfare provisions in division X the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, P.L. 116-260. The recording for the webinar can be found here. The passcode to access the webinar is 9ES4H0K#.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
A recent article in The Denver Business Journal discusses how the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) has changed the way Colorado's residential care facilities for youth involved with child welfare operate. Residential care is often seen as a last resort, as it removes youth from a family environment, which can lead to difficulties with healing from trauma and social integration after they exit care.
There are over 50 Colorado agencies that, collectively, are licensed to support 1,664 children in residential care. Between 800 and 1,000 children and youth are currently in residential care in the state. FFPSA seeks to greatly reduce the number of beds available in residential care in order to keep children and youth in families. The reduction of slots available in residential facilities has led to an upheaval of financial priorities, focusing more funds and training toward strengthening the capacity of families and foster families to care for children within safe and caring homes and requiring residential facilities to switch to alternative business plans.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
Since 2010, the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) has been collecting outcomes information directly from youth transitioning out of the foster care system through a series of shorts surveys. This reporting system is the first to include youth and family voice in program monitoring, with the goal of understanding the passage of youth through the child welfare system and beyond.
Ten years later, the following data highlight the importance of this data-collection effort:
In addition to collecting data on youth transitioning from care, NYTD surveys also provide youth with an opportunity to reconnect with supports and systems they may have lost contact with after exiting care.
For more information, read "A Decade Studying Foster Youth Transition to Adulthood" from The Imprint, and visit the Children's Bureau NYTD webpage.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
A new report from Think of Us, Aged Out: How We're Failing Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care, presents findings from a study conducted to help inform the work of serving youth who are aging out of foster care.
Between fall 2019 and spring 2020, Think of Us partnered with Bloom Works and five partner sites across the United States (Santa Clara County, CA; First Place for Youth in Solano and San Francisco Counties, CA; The New York Foundling in New York City, NY; Hennepin County, MN; and Uplift Family Services, San José, CA) in an effort to better understand the transition process for youth aging out of care and identify gaps in the system that need to be addressed.
Study researchers conducted indepth interviews and participatory design workshops with youth formerly in foster care, youth currently in care, child welfare professionals, supportive adults, foster parents, and others concerned with the welfare of youth aging out of the system. A total of 206 participants were interviewed in 92 research sessions.
The interviews and research sessions revealed the following three key themes that represent where child welfare stakeholders should focus their attention:
The report also includes details on the sources and long-term effects of trauma, preparing youth for life after foster care, and helping youth build a strong network of support.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
This latest episode of the Child Welfare Information Gateway Podcast Series is the first of three that delve into what the child welfare field learned during 2020 and discusses potential changes or shifts in how the field operates. The episode features Andrew Winters, Ph.D., M.S.W., a member of the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QID-WD). It focuses on interventions to build resiliency among caseworkers and supervisors, including those aimed at strengthening supervisors' ability to support their staff and themselves to better manage the negative impacts of the stress brought about by the uncertainty and fear of working during a pandemic.
The following topics are also discussed during the podcast:
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
Written by the Capacity Building Center for States
Children and youth engaged with the child welfare system often experience trauma at significant rates (Dorsey et al., 2012). To address the complex challenges that arise when children and youth are exposed to trauma, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) requires the use of trauma-informed practices along the full continuum of child welfare services, including those provided at a qualified residential treatment program (QRTP). According to the law, residential programs approved as QRTPs must use an appropriately staffed trauma-informed treatment model that meets the behavioral health-care needs of child and youth residents (Children's Bureau, 2018).
The information below is adapted from the Center for States' forthcoming publication, Congregate Care in the Age of Family First: Trauma-Informed Care. This publication can help agency leaders and managers working with residential treatment programs understand the basics of a trauma-informed approach for children and youth, including those in congregate care.
Core Principles of Trauma-Informed Care
While a trauma-informed approach to individual clinical practice is critical, it must be implemented in the context of an organizational commitment to trauma-informed care. Residential settings that treat children and youth who have been exposed to trauma must ensure that their treatment practices are rooted in the six principles listed below (Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, 2019):
Planning for Trauma-Informed Care
Becoming trauma informed requires that an organization examine current practices and policies and implement a collaborative approach to organizational change. The following strategies can help organizations begin or continue the transition toward trauma-informed care (Dubay et al., 2018).
Build Awareness and Leadership Commitment
Any effort to transition to a trauma-informed approach should be rooted in a widespread organizational awareness that trauma impacts youth, staff, leadership, and the organization itself. Leadership commitment to trauma-informed care is an important part of the transition since leaders can serve as internal champions who share information and build support and buy-in among staff.
Collaborate With Families and Youth
Families and youth are the experts in their own care and needs and have substantial lived expertise that can help agencies move to a trauma-informed approach to care. Agencies and residential care facilities should work with families and youth at both case and system levels to drive the transition to trauma-informed care. Families, youth, and children (as appropriate) should be involved in all stages of the treatment process.
Ensure Organizational Support
Organizational policies, practices, and culture should reflect a commitment to the core principles of trauma-informed care, such as routinely screening children and youth in care for trauma. Trauma-informed care should also be reflected in the organization's budget, including funds to do the following:
Build a Trauma-Informed Workforce
Building a trauma-informed workforce starts with hiring and education practices that support trauma-informed care and treatment models, including education on topics such as adverse childhood experiences, secondary trauma, self-care, and transference. All clinical and nonclinical staff should receive training in trauma-informed care. In addition, the organization should encourage staff to engage in self-care and personal growth and should take steps to prevent secondary trauma in staff.
The Center for States' forthcoming 2021 series, Congregate Care in the Age of Family First, will offer more strategies for implementing the provisions of the FFPSA in a congregate care setting. (Visit the Center for State's website for more updates.) Agencies can also work with the Center for States to develop and implement successful approaches to trauma-informed care. Visit the Child Welfare Capacity Building Collaborative Liaisons webpage to find your state's tailored services liaison.
Children's Bureau. (2018). Information Memorandum: ACYF-CB-IM-18-02. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/im1802
Dorsey, S. B., Burns, B. J., Southerland, D. G., Cox, J. R., Wagner, H. R., & Farmer, E. M. Z. (2012). Prior trauma exposure for youth in treatment foster care. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 21, 816–824. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-011-9542-4
Dubay, L., Burton, R. A., & Epstein, M. (2018). Early adopters of trauma-informed care: An implementation analysis of the advancing trauma-informed care grantees. Urban Institute. https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/wp-content/uploads/early_adopters_of_trauma-informed_care-evaluation.pdf
Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. (2019). What is trauma-informed care? https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma-informed-care/
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
The Children's Bureau website hosts information on child welfare programs, funding, monitoring, training and technical assistance, laws, statistics, research, federal reporting, and much more.
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Section: News From the Children's Bureau
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