Act 91 FAQs: Extension of Care Past Age 18

This FAQ represents the interpretation of Juvenile Law Center. We will update this FAQ as we learn new information, so please check back frequently for updates.

What does the law change about the conditions for staying in care past age 18? 

Act 91 expands the criteria for staying in care past age 18 and provides more detail regarding eligible activities. Prior to Act 91, youth could only stay in care past age 18 if they were in a program of "treatment" or "instruction." While case law made clear that the term "instruction" was broad and at least included post-secondary education1, interpretation of the term varied throughout the state. Thus, many eligible youth did not remain in care.

Act 91 provides much more clarity on eligible activities while leaving the youth and those working with the youth the ability to individualize the plan. As a result, focus can be placed on developing the skills youth need to support themselves and be productive and healthy when they leave care. 

What activities can a youth engage in to remain in care past age 18?

In addition to being adjudicated dependent before turning age 18, and requesting to continue in care, since the enacting of Act 91, youth can remain in care past 18 if they are doing any one of the following:

  • Completing secondary education or an equivalent credential;
  • Enrolled in an institution that provides post-secondary or vocational education;
  • Participating in a program actively designed to promote or remove barriers to employment;
  • Employed for at least 80 hours per month; or
  • Incapable of doing any of the activities described above due to a medical or behavioral health condition, which is supported by regularly updated information in the permanency plan of the child.

Does a youth have to do more than one of these activities to remain in care?

No. The youth must do at least one of the listed activities, or meet the exception (v). Of course, a youth can combine activities such as part-time work in addition to going to college or a trade school. However, if the youth chooses to focus on one activity, that is still a permissible basis for continued court jurisdiction.

Does a GED preparation program lead to a credential that is the equivalent of secondary education?

Yes. While not defined in the statute, programs that prepare a youth for getting their General Equivalency Diploma (GED) are alternatives to completing secondary education and are eligible activities for extended dependency jurisdiction under Act 91.

What are examples of institutions that provide post-secondary or vocational education?

These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Community colleges or junior colleges
  • Four-year colleges or universities
  • Trade schools, including Job Corps

What are examples of programs actively designed to promote or remove barriers to employment?

What can be considered an acceptable program under this criterion will be individualized and depend on the specific barriers to employment that the youth is facing. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Programs funded or designed by the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) for individuals with disabilities
  • Vocational or trade programs
  • Programs designed for individuals with disabilities to improve work readiness or work skills
  • Vocational or job skills development programs through the Office of Income Maintenance (welfare), Career Link or other Workforce Development entities
  • Courses, programs, or services recommended by the county Independent Living Program may also fall into this category.

Can a youth who works and does not attend school or any educational or training program stay in care past age 18? 

Yes. This is a new category in the law. As long as youth are working at least 80 hours a month, they can remain in care past age 18. Some youth decide to focus on developing job skills and working; others take time after completing high school to enter the work world rather than immediately continue their education. These youth do still need the support of the system as they gain experience in the work world and master adult living skills. For some youth, an employment experience may help them make decisions about their career path that leads them back to higher education and training. Child welfare workers are encouraged to use the experience of work as a practical opportunity to help the youth master other adult living skills such as budgeting, time management, decision making, and social skills. 

How will youth prove that they are working 80 hours a month?

The law does not provide direction on this. Attorneys and caseworkers should advise their clients to keep and copy work schedules, pay stubs and any other documents that record their hours at least on a monthly basis.  If the youth's employment comes from a combination of sources, such as paid employment and an unpaid internship, for example, special care should be taken in documenting total work hours. Developing forms or other easy to use tools to record and document work hours is also recommended and should be connected with case planning, including independent living and transition planning. 

Caseworkers and Independent Living (IL) workers may want to consider creative ways to work this documentation requirement into IL instruction, such as keeping a schedule, understanding taxes, budgeting, and saving.  

Can a youth work more than 80 hours per month?

Yes. 80 hours a month is a minimum requirement for court jurisdiction. Many youth who opt to stay in care based on this criterion will likely be working full time or working toward a full-time schedule. Other youth who face more barriers to employment may only be able to work 80 hours per month. 

Does Act 91 provide any provisions for youth with disabilities?

Yes. If a youth has a medical or behavioral health condition that prevents them from meeting any of the listed activity-based criteria, they may still remain in care. Documentation of the condition, and the fact that this condition prevents the youth from engaging in any of the other activities, must be provided by the youth’s treatment provider and must be included in the permanency plan and updated at least at each permanency plan review and revision. The youth's caseworker and attorney should help ensure that appropriate documentation is in the youth's file and included in the permanency plan to assure continued eligibility. Because federal law requires that the youth’s case plan contain the most recent health and education records, including information about treatment providers and any medical issues, this documentation should be readily accessible.  See 42 U.S.C.A. § 675 (1)(C). 

In addition, Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Rules require that the court make findings about any health and disability issues at each court hearing, and can order evaluations and treatment in certain situations.  See Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Rule 1512 (D)(i).  If evaluations or treatment is needed, it can be ordered by the court.

Are youth who are delinquent in addition to being dependent also eligible to extend care under Act 91?

Yes. As long as they meet the eligibility criteria (were adjudicated dependent before turning age 18, request to remain in care, and engage in at least one of the required activities, or meet the exception), a youth who is also delinquent—in addition to being dependent—can stay in care past age 18 under Act 91.

Case Example: Youth was adjudicated dependent at age 12. She was adjudicated  delinquent at age 16.  She remained under dual jurisdiction of the juvenile court when she reached age 18. Because she was attending high school as junior and requested to remain in care past age 18, she was eligible under Act 91 for continued court jurisdiction. 

Are any of the activities listed in the law preferred over any of the others?

No. Under the law, a youth is eligible to remain in care if they are otherwise eligible (i.e., adjudicated dependent before age 18 and request to remain in care) and are engaging in at least one of the activities—or the exception—listed in Act 91. That means that for the purposes of eligibility, all activities are equal. For example, if a youth is working 80 hours a month or enrolled in a vocational program, he or she will be as eligible under Act 91 to remain in care past age 18 as another youth who is pursuing post-secondary education.

The goal of all the expanded criteria is to provide youth an array of productive activities that will assist them in developing the skills they need to be independent and self-sufficient as they enter adulthood. Act 91 provides a range of activities that are acceptable for the purposes of remaining under court jurisdiction.  Ideally, the youth and his or her team are working together to develop individualized permanency and transition plans that include activities and services to help the youth achieve his or her goals. The activity chosen to meet eligibility under Act 91 should be determined after considering a youth’s needs, strengths, and preferences as he transitions to adulthood and should form an integral part of both these plans.

Can a county decide to allow youth to extend in care past age 18 based on only some of the Act 91 criteria, but not others?

No.  Act 91 provides the criteria for eligibility to remain in care past age 18.  Counties cannot select some of the activities listed in the law, but not others. 

Case Example: County A feels strongly that higher education is key to youth developing self-sufficiency skills and decided it would only allow youth to remain in care past age 18 if they enroll in high school or higher education. Under this policy, youth who work at least 80 hours a month would be ineligible to remain in care in County A. 

This policy is impermissible under Act 91. Counties must honor all four of the activities allowed under Act 91, and the exception, as bases to remain in care past age 18. Counties that want to encourage youth to pursue higher education can and should implement policies and support services that increase the odds that youth will pursue higher education. However, they may not prevent youth from accessing extended care by removing one of Act 91’s eligibility criteria or the activity exception in furtherance of this goal. Examples of programs or services that would encourage youth to pursue education could include providing more academic support and college exploration activities as early as possible and as part of the IL curriculum. It could also include partnerships with local colleges and universities to better prepare youth for higher education and help with retention. Connecting youth with SAT and ACT preparation classes and academic mentoring programs could also be implemented. Providing all of these services and supports and communicating to youth that the county values their education is a great way to increase the odds that older youth will pursue higher education and training and is not only permissible, but encouraged.    

What about dispositions—should they be different based on what activity the youth selects?

Under the Juvenile Act, all dispositions should be individualized.  See Janet D. v. Carros, 362 A. 2d 1060, 1076 (Pa. Super. 1976). They should also be “best suited to the safety, protection and physical, mental, and moral welfare of the child.”  42 Pa. C.S.A. § 6351 (a). A youth’s disposition includes treatment, services, visitation, and supports as well as where the youth will live (placement or living arrangement).  The activity the youth has chosen—school, work, training, etc.—will play a role in the type of disposition chosen because it will impact the support the youth needs and may affect the placement needs of the youth. The differences in the dispositions would be based on the individual differences in the youth’s needs. However, no activity should be treated more preferably than another in terms of the services or supports provided to a youth. For example, a youth should not be rewarded or given more privileges than another youth simply because of the activity he or she chose to pursue.

Is it recommended that youth have a “back-up plan” or alternative criterion for eligibility?

Yes. Adolescence and young adulthood are naturally times of growth, experimentation and confusion. Young adults are exploring their independence, learning who they are, and what their interest and strengths are. Taking this into consideration, having a back-up or alternative criterion for remaining in care past age 18 makes sense. Having an alternative activity in mind will help those working with the youth to be prepared to support and guide the youth as he or she experiences different career paths and opportunities on the path to self-sufficiency and adult living.

Can youth change the activity they select as the basis to remain in care past age 18?

Yes. The law does not prohibit the youth from changing bases for eligibility.  However, at each permanency hearing the court must find that the youth still meets the definition of a “child” including meeting the activity requirement or its exception. 42 Ps. C.S.A. § 6351 (f)(8.1).   

The goal of remaining in care past age 18 is to help youth develop the skills they need to be successful in the adult world. As we all know, figuring out the path to success, including decisions about career, work, and education takes some exploration and time. Youth should be supported in this exploration and receive guidance and instruction as they navigate their options, skills, and talents. Changing the activity selected may be the result of growth and experience. For example, a youth who decided to focus on employment may decide that he or she wants to pursue higher education or training to further career opportunities after seeing co-workers with more education get promoted. Alternatively, changing the activity may reflect the emergence of a treatment need or identification of a disability that requires a more-specialized program or services. The youth and his or her team should work together to integrate this change into the independent living and transition plan so that appropriate goals and support can quickly be put in place to reflect any changes.