Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004
Recommended Changes in Policy and Services
For older youths in foster care to succeed, given the limitations of current policies and programs, key interventions and services need to be strengthened. Ten changes to improve transition services for older youths are described below.58
1. Use Goal-Oriented Case Planning and Family Involvement
Finding permanent homes for harder-to-place older children can be challenging. Program effectiveness in family foster care begins with intensive, focused, and goal-oriented case planning that provides for meaningful involvement of the child, birth family, and extended family members, as appropriate.59 Needed steps to move in this direction include a careful intake study, family-focused assessments, service contracts, and provision of both clinical and concrete services such as employment, housing, and income assistance. More systematic decision making and the setting of time limits are also needed. Examples include the “concurrent planning” approach, in which workers simultaneously pursue two or more permanency options, such as reunification and termination of parental rights. A number of states are studying this strategy.60
2. Provide Youths with a Voice in Their Care
According to a variety of child rights documents, children placed in foster care need a sense of their future and some role in decision making.61 Not only would this improve the quality of care youths receive, it would also help empower youths to develop into self-sufficient and confident adults.62 Various groups are trying to involve youths more meaningfully in all phases of their work. For example, Casey Family Programs has launched a national foster care alumni association to reach out to and enlist the help of thousands of young people and older adults who have been in family foster care.63, 64 When given a voice, youths can be very clear about what they want, including to feel cared about; to be part of a family; to be able to count on adults for security, structure, and guidance; to have opportunities to discover and develop their potential; and to feel like their opinions matter.65
3. Facilitate Youth Adjustment and Development
Further efforts are needed to implement developmentally sensitive child welfare services for older youths.66 Currently, policy and practice are primarily concerned with where children are placed. However, the developmental impact of taking youths from their families, even for one day, is as important to their growing up to be successful adults as where they grow up. Placement is often emotionally upsetting for a child, depending upon the home situation he or she is leaving. Better developmental outcomes for youths will require consideration of the following commonsense actions:
- Maintaining some connection with birth families, as children are better able to modify their relationships with parents if they are not denied these relationships or expected to abandon them completely.67
- Promoting identification with biological parents, when appropriate,68 including the provision of information about the reasons for placement and the meaning of foster care status.
- Allowing children to know their biological family makeup, their age when they left home, and where their parents are currently located. Such information has been shown to help youths better adjust to and do well in foster care.69
- Promoting agreement among foster parents, social workers, and biological parents concerning their roles and plans for children.
- Promoting placement stability, an important goal linked to positive self-identity for older youths.70 Key factors associated with increases in placement stability include workers and foster parents who are able to balance flexibility and firmness, advocate for children, and maintain a sense of humor.71
4. Hire and Coach Highly Skilled Workers
Empathy, positive regard, ability to form a helping relationship, clear communication, cultural competence, and expectations for improvement are important intervention components linked with treatment effectiveness. 72 These skills require an investment in careful worker recruitment and screening, as well as high-quality staff development programs. Especially effective are competency-based approaches to education and training that tie worker performance to the agency's goals and priorities.73
5. Promote Parental Visitation
Although somewhat dated, available research indicates that visitation with parents and siblings is not only highly correlated with better child functioning at discharge from foster care but also allows children to leave foster care in much higher numbers and more quickly.74 Especially crucial are early and regular parent-child visits soon after the child's placement.75 Most children placed in family foster care eventually return home— casework therefore needs to focus on improving the parent and family conditions that originally necessitated placement. Even if an older youth is never reunified, visitation may improve the relationship with the birth family and he or she may be able to receive some assistance from them after leaving formal care.76 Experienced and trained workers with reasonable caseloads are needed to initiate and sustain a pattern of frequent visits by biological parents (as safe and appropriate) and to provide intensive family services early in a child's placement.77
6. Involve Schools and Communities as Part of a “Systems of Care” Approach
Supporting families under stress requires both government and community leadership, as well as funding.78 Preventive supplementary services and more alternatives to foster care are essential. Children enter foster care with medical, educational, and often psychological needs79 but are often confronted with gaps in health care services, especially remedial medical, dental, vision, and hearing services.80
In addition, further educational efforts are needed. Schools, child welfare agencies (public and private), and family/dependency court systems must identify key improvements aimed at coordinating services and resources so that children attend school and are ready to learn every day. Needed improvements include an emphasis on continuity of school placements, sitebased case management and training, coordinated educational advice and supports, mental health services, family advocacy training, and shared educational records. Special educational supports such as tutoring, enrichment, and other programs are also needed to help children succeed.81
Finally, wraparound and other components of a “systems of care” approach can help youths obtain the services they need in effective ways and can prevent placement disruptions and minimize placement in residential treatment.82 Child placement agencies that have ready access (via in-house or a closely linked referral system) to a range of service options—such as 24- hour homemaker, crisis intervention, and emergency housing services—are much more likely to either prevent placement or at least develop service plans leading to a child's return home or other permanent placement.83
7. Focus on Independent Living Skills
The disruptions and traumas often suffered by children in foster care may delay or interrupt development of life skills needed for successful transition to independent living. Programming and services designed to fill the gaps and needs created by these delays are essential for successful emancipation and social integration of these children. Four overarching strategies for preparing youths for self-sufficiency include: (1) systematic skills assessment; (2) independent-living-skills training; (3) involvement of caregivers as teachers; and (4) developing connections with birth families and the community.84 Systematic skills assessment is important because it helps the worker, youth, and caregivers develop a specific plan based on a comprehensive evaluation of the youth's strengths and deficits. Ideally, foster parents, youths, and birth parents (if available) should all be involved in the process. A more comprehensive approach to building transitional living skills over time and through partnerships is also important.85 A Baltimore County study showed that youths who received independent-living/life-skills services were more likely to complete high school, have an employment history, and be employed when they left foster care.
Preserving or building support networks is useful for finding employment for youths and for general emotional support.86
Connections to the birth family and others in the community are important associations, because this is where youths tend to turn for support once they leave care,87
and these resources can help youths address and resolve feelings of grief, loss, and rejection.88
Several former foster youths attributed their survival and success to one person or one asset that assisted them in independent living. Many reported that the difference between success and failure hinged on one friend or family member, perhaps someone who gave the youth a place to stay, someone who gave him or her a car for getting to work, or a caseworker who helped the youth get training.89
9. Encourage States to Sponsor Foster Care Alumni Scholarships90
Many good jobs require specialized training. There are cost-effective ways to help foster care alumni pursue such options, such as tuition waivers or assistance and help in registering for college. Furthermore, research indicates that education and transition planning, enrolling in college or a vocational program, and receiving financial support for higher education are associated with lifelong economic benefits for foster care alumni.91 For example, lifetime earning differences include $900,000 in added earnings for those with a college degree compared to those with a high school diploma only, $300,000 for some college training versus a high school diploma only, and $500,000 for some college training versus no high school diploma.92 More than 10 states have made efforts along these lines, but all states, counties, and private agencies should be encouraged to help all youths transitioning from foster care gain access to postsecondary programs and supports.
However, public funds currently available to support postsecondary education for former foster youths are often ineffectively targeted or underutilized.93 This is due in part to a lack of integrated programming across agencies, which limits avenues for coordination and collaboration.94 In some communities, the wrong types of programs are being funded. For example, evidence shows that classroom training for employment skills is not as cost-effective as on-the-job internships and job placement, yet a significant proportion of funds are allocated to in-class job training.95 In addition, state funding and service-use data, as well as the limited information available about youth outcomes, indicate that communities are not effectively utilizing public funds.96 All youths aging out of foster care who seek postsecondary education or training should have access to tailored financial aid and program supports using an expanding array of national, state, local, institutional, public, and private resources. (See Box 5.) To provide this access, agencies need to collaborate, advocate, and do some realistic planning for their service populations.97
10. Provide New and Creative Supplemental Independent Living Services
New and creative services that might be provided include greater access to Individual Development and Education Accounts (IDEAs), medical coverage, JCYOI Passports, employment training and support, and transitional housing programs. (See Appendix 1 for a description of these services and example programs across the country.)