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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney


How an adolescent fares during the transition to adulthood has long-term repercussions. Earning a college degree leads to a higher-paying and more prestigious job, while early parenthood, unsuccessful marriage at a young age, and involvement in crime or problematic substance use all foretell difficulties in finances, family relationships, and beyond.1 More than twenty years ago, the William T. Grant Foundation's influential report on The Forgotten Half demonstrated that non-college-bound youth have much poorer prospects for successful and satisfying adult lives than do college-bound youth.2 In this article we focus on what the transition to adulthood means for youth who are considerably more vulnerable, as evidenced by their involvement in social service and justice systems during childhood and adolescence.3 If the transition to adulthood is likely to be smooth for college-bound middle-class youth, but is often rough sledding for working-class non-college-bound youth, then it can be a minefield for such vulnerable populations.4

As Rick Settersten and Barbara Ray make clear in their article in this issue, moving into adulthood involves a long and often difficult transition in the United States and other industrialized nations in the West. The period after high school and well into the twenties has become a time of semi-autonomy during which youth typically remain dependent on their parents in many ways, not only financially, but also for help ranging from a place to live to extended child care. If the transition to adulthood is slow and arduous for a large share of the general population, how much harder must it be for young people who have spent years in the mental health or juvenile justice system or in foster care? The problems facing these groups as they transition to adulthood are critically important, to these youths and their families of course, but also to the public institutions that have evolved over time to address their special needs, and to the nation as a whole.

These vulnerable youth populations can be described in terms of the specific challenges they confront—their disabilities, for example, or their trauma histories—over and above those faced by young people generally. They can also be described with respect to the public systems that provide services to them, and often constrain their opportunities, before and during the transition to adulthood. Because vulnerable youth often face multiple challenges and are often served by multiple public systems, it is difficult to estimate precisely the size of the population as a whole, as well as to identify clear policy directions. We have chosen here to describe these youth in terms of the public systems with which they are involved. Although this approach has its limits, its strength is that it illuminates the challenge of how policy reform can help vulnerable youth move successfully into adulthood. We consider the transition to adulthood for seven populations, distinguished by their involvement in specific government systems: the mental health system, the foster care system, the juvenile justice system, the criminal justice system, special education, the health care system (for youth with physical disabilities and chronic illness), and (though these youth really have no comprehensive system of care) runaway and homeless youth.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that the diverse missions of the systems that provide services for vulnerable youth complicate the task of assisting the transition to adulthood. Some of the systems, notably foster care and juvenile justice, are custodial in nature, while others generally provide support to young people but do not take over parental responsibility. The foster care and juvenile justice systems are held legally accountable for the overall safety and well-being (for example, education and health) of youth in their care, though they often rely on other systems for assistance in carrying out these roles. In contrast, although they can provide crucial support to vulnerable youth, the health and special education systems are responsible for more specialized services targeting particular needs of young people. And although the juvenile and adult justice systems are responsible for meeting the needs of the populations they serve, they are also expected to play a role in ensuring public safety. The different missions of these custodial and non-custodial systems are not, at least in principle, in conflict with each other, but their distinct goals can get in the way of close collaboration.

Even if the transition to adulthood had not become so demanding, members of these vulnerable groups would face exceptional challenges finding employment, attending college, and marrying and starting a family. Many struggle with emotional or behavioral problems; many have histories of problems in school and the community. Often their families are unable or unwilling to provide the support that most families provide to their children during this transition—funding for college, child care that permits work or schooling for young parents, a place to live when times are hard. Some of these young adults are hampered by limited capacities and difficulty acquiring skills. The day-to-day tasks of achieving financial and residential independence can be daunting because of physical disabilities, chronic illness, or mental illness. And it has long been thought that involvement in the justice and foster care systems may exacerbate the problems of some youth or carry a stigma that makes success less likely.5

The difficulties that members of these groups encounter as children and adolescents lead all of them to depend on (or be entangled in) public systems, often for many years. But the transition to adulthood changes their established relationships with these systems, typically in dramatic ways. Reaching the age of eighteen or twenty-one may end eligibility for services, sometimes abruptly. The eligibility cutoffs are increasingly problematic because most other young people their age continue to depend on others and need support and training, often for many years. Only rarely, as with special education services and foster care, are programs already in place to smooth the transition to adulthood. More often, youth leave systems tailored for clients their age and, if they are eligible for further services at all, enter new systems that serve much older people and that are not equipped to address the special issues of young adulthood. Such changes in eligibility and in service systems pose important and complex issues for public policy.