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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

Recent Federal Policy Developments

Washington's heightened interest in improving supports for vulnerable young adults is evident both in moves to expand the federal role in the lives of these youths and in efforts to improve coordination of the systems that serve them.

The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 provides a compelling example of a shift in U.S. social policy toward a socially inclusive approach to a vulnerable population of youth in transition. The law amends Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to allow states, at their option, to care for and support foster youth until the age of twenty-one provided that the youth are engaged in one of four activities—completing high school or an equivalency program, attending postsecondary or vocational school, participating in a vocational program, working for at least eighty hours a month—or are incapable of these activities because of a medical condition. Young people aged eighteen and older can be living independently in a supervised setting as well as placed in a foster home or group care setting.

The Fostering Connections Act marks a philosophical shift toward acknowledging continuing state responsibility to act in loco parentis for foster youth into early adulthood. The title of the law implies a shift from encouraging youth to be independent (the language used in earlier policy directed toward foster youth in transition) toward helping them make the connections they will need to be successful adults. The law's provisions stress that state-supervised out-of-home care for young adults ought to differ in significant ways from care provided to minors. States must, for example, engage these young adults in activities that are developmentally appropriate (for example, higher education and employment) and must create more developmentally appropriate care settings for young adults (for example, supervised independent living arrangements).

The new federal law gives states entitlement funding to provide transition-age youth with basic necessities and case management services, thus providing a foundation on which states can build a range of supports. Although many states have policies, at least on paper, that call for providing independent living services through age twenty-one, the poor economic circumstances of youth who leave foster care and the resulting instability of their living arrangements arguably undermine efforts to engage these young people in services. The ability to use Title IV-E funds to stably house foster youth between eighteen and twenty-one may allow states to better engage youth in other services available from child welfare agencies. Giving state child welfare agencies IV-E funding to continue providing case management beyond age eighteen may also help these agencies play the coordinating role that is necessary to help young people navigate the various public systems charged with assisting them—postsecondary education, workforce development, health and mental health services, and housing.

It is too soon to know whether the Fostering Connections Act will lead to the improved adult outcomes for foster youth envisioned by its sponsors, particularly because it provides support only to age twenty-one. Moreover, foster youth make up only a small proportion of all vulnerable youth. However, the foster youth population exhibits all of the challenges that characterize vulnerable youth in transition. If the comprehensive array of support provided by the new law is shown to significantly improve the transition to adulthood for foster youth, states may be encouraged to provide more support to other populations of vulnerable youth.

Perhaps the most important example of federal efforts to improve coordination between the systems that serve vulnerable youth is the Shared Youth Vision Initiative.58 It began as a cross-agency partnership formed in response to the 2003 White House Task Force Report on Disadvantaged Youth, which identified the need to integrate systems at the federal, state, and local levels to move vulnerable youth into adulthood. In 2004, the Department of Labor formed a Shared Youth Vision partnership with the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. Since its inception, the partnership has engaged thirty states in planning, and the states now have formally established Shared Youth Vision teams. Nine federal agencies (Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Social Security Administration, Transportation, and the Corporation for National and Community Service) are involved, and the partnership provides technical assistance, capacity building, and peer-to-peer support. Planning grants have been awarded to sixteen pilot states to provide more intensive and targeted support in advancing the initiative's concepts and implementation.

The Shared Youth Vision effort has led to a wide array of promising state- and local-level collaborations between youth- and adult-serving systems. For example, in the Arizona collaboration, several state and local youth-serving agencies provide coordinated support to youth transitioning from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in two counties. The goal is to strengthen partnerships with local educational entities and employers to prepare, employ, and retain young people transitioning from care into employment. Alabama's project serves youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, as well as youth with disabilities, out-of-school youth and dropouts, and youth living in poverty. High-level professional staff, representing each of the several state agencies involved, meet regularly to address inter-agency frictions, budget cuts, and turf battles. The project targets eight counties that make up one of the state's administrative regions. Four Alabama Career (One-Stop) Centers in the region lead the initiative at the local level. Although the Shared Youth Vision initiative has supported a variety of state initiatives, the effectiveness of these efforts in improving outcomes for vulnerable youth has yet to be evaluated.

Moreover, although the initiative is a promising start in cross-system coordination and collaboration, the categorical nature of federal program eligibility and funding is likely to remain a serious obstacle to creating a socially inclusive and developmentally appropriate system of support for vulnerable youth in transition to adulthood. For example, youth served by the juvenile justice and child welfare systems are often housed in the same group care and therapeutic foster care placement settings, but juvenile justice youth who do not meet criteria for Title IV-E funding are not eligible for many transition services available to foster youth, thus complicating the task of providing services in the homes of many young people.

Creative use of waivers of federal funding requirements could offer opportunities for Shared Youth Vision pilot states to experiment with more flexible and comprehensive approaches to providing services to the broad population of vulnerable youth. For example, Title IV-E funding can be used only for room and board for those in child welfare. Waivers, however, could allow some of those funds to be used for mental health services. Similar federal waivers, in combination with rigorous evaluation research, have been used effectively in identifying promising approaches to moving parents from welfare to work, in reforming Medicaid, and in identifying strategies for moving children out of long-term foster care.