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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

Changing and Narrowly Defined Eligibility for Service Systems

The services these vulnerable populations receive as children and adolescents often come to an end during the transition to adulthood, even if the need for them continues and even if current life circumstances present obvious difficulties. The government assumes different relationships with children than with adults and offers separate sets of service systems for the two groups. Because the government sees children as being dependent, it makes more services available to them and puts less restrictive eligibility criteria on them.

As adolescents move into adulthood, their program eligibility ends, sometimes abruptly and sometimes in phases. State-supported foster care, for instance, stops between ages eighteen and twenty-one, depending on the state, reflecting an outdated notion that the step from childhood dependence to adult independence is a simple one. Independence is, indeed, the appropriate goal, but the modern transition to adulthood is long and complex, and chances of success are much enhanced by continued support. More than ever, adolescents benefit from assuming responsibility gradually, while receiving continued guidance from concerned adults. After the difficulties that youth in foster care have faced earlier in life, their need for continuing assistance from adults is no doubt greater than that of most other youth. It is deeply problematic that, having assumed the role of parent during the teen years, the state refuses to play the important continuing role of parent during the next decade.

In the special education system, by contrast, services extend into early adulthood and are tailored to individuals' needs. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires secondary schools to begin developing individualized transition plans when students are fourteen. Each special education student must have a plan with long-term goals for education, vocational training, and general life skills, and that plan must specify the services needed to achieve these goals.

In some systems, reaching the age of majority brings drastic change. A stark example is the shift from the juvenile justice system to the adult criminal justice system. After reaching a state's age of majority (usually eighteen), youth who commit criminal offenses are no longer eligible for the juvenile justice system. Instead they move from the juvenile system, which views children as dependent and malleable and takes rehabilitation as at least its nominal goal, to the adult system, where the explicit goal is punishment.

In all these systems, the state assumes less responsibility for youth once they pass an age threshold beyond which they are no longer considered children. When they move across that arbitrary line and become adults, the systems that have been trying to meet their needs are no longer available. They either lose eligibility for assistance altogether or face a totally new set of eligibility requirements to enter systems with different missions. And when they are eligible for new services, adult-focused agencies rarely offer programs that address their specific developmental needs and rarely offer specialized training for staff toward this end. Continuing services for these vulnerable populations might not be necessary if government systems had prepared them fully for the transition to adulthood—and if the transition to well-paying jobs and early marriages were as smooth today as it was during the 1950s. No doubt some vulnerable youth still make that transition successfully, but for many others whose severe difficulties have kept them involved in these systems for years, success is highly unlikely.

That eligibility for assistance changes just as these youth begin the transition to adulthood is not the only problem with the eligibility criteria of these public programs. Each program is designed to respond to what is perceived to be a distinct need (such as disability or mental illness) or problem (such as crime), even though vulnerable young people do not fit neatly into such narrowly defined eligibility "boxes." Because public support systems for vulnerable youth have been designed around these categorical eligibility criteria, no one system is responsible for meeting the entire range of needs of the young people it serves, and each system uses its own eligibility criteria to engage in a process of gate-keeping that can deny youth access to services. For example, state child welfare and juvenile justice systems can be in conflict over which system should provide care for adolescents engaging in problematic behavior, and the way that conflict is resolved can have significant consequences for the kinds of services available to youth after reaching the age of majority.