Older Youth in Foster Care

Every child deserves a family and a fair chance at success in adulthood. Among the child welfare system’s core responsibilities are finding youth a permanent family and preparing them for an adulthood where they can achieve their potential and have their needs met.

Older youth in the child welfare system particularly need assistance as they make the transition from their teenage years to becoming adults. Most people know that the average 18-year-old needs continuous support from their family even as they mature and seek to establish their independence. Young adults often turn to family for help with basic life skills — laundry, opening a bank account, navigating financial aid for college, or preparing for a job interview. Youth in foster care need and deserve the same kinds of support.

We also know that as youth mature, their brains continue to develop between their teen age years and age 25. Additionally, trauma — which many youth in foster care experience — can complicate normal, healthy development and delay typical milestones: graduating from high school, getting a driver’s license, attending college, getting a first job, or finding their first apartment. Healthy growth requires stability, engaging in age-appropriate activities and responsibilities, and developing long-term nurturing relationships.

Juvenile Law Center focuses on older youth in foster care because we know their involvement in the child welfare system presents special challenges as they navigate their teenage years and enter into young adulthood.

Systems Must Work For Older Youth

Federal law requires that all youth have a permanency plan and a series of permanency review and status hearings each year. Planning and service delivery to prepare youth for the transition to adulthood must begin at age 14. Youth must have a high-quality transition — or discharge — plan before leaving foster care to ensure that they have the resources, relationships, and skills they need to lead a productive life where their needs are met and their future goals are supported.   

Transition planning isn’t about a vague notion of “independence;” rather, it’s about developing a young person’s supportive networks, resources, and skills and preparing them for success in the adult world. It also involves planning around several issues — from healthcare to education to housing and employment.

“Permanency” is a legal term for providing youth with a permanent, supportive family or a family-like network, which includes adults, peers, and community. Ideally, permanency is achieved through establishing legal connections as well as long-lasting relationships. 

Youth need both effective permanency planning and effective transition planning to be successful. The child welfare system is obligated to provide youth with robust, thorough transition and permanency planning and services. Consistent with both of these obligations, the child welfare system must provide youth of all ages “normalcy.” This simply means that youth in the child welfare system should have the same opportunities as their peers who are not in placement to participate in activities and experiences in their schools and communities. These experiences not only help young people build skills and become more connected with their communities, they also help them heal and increase their chances of achieving permanency. 

Youth must also be actively engaged in the planning and delivery of these services. With their participation and direction, transition and permanency planning will better reflect their individual goals and interests, build their desired skills, and work to connect youth to family members and adults committed to their success.

Juvenile Law Center promotes law and policies that support youth in successfully transitioning to adulthood. This means working to implement transition and permanency planning policies that require early, comprehensive, and high-quality planning that results in outcomes for which the system is accountable. We do this through legislative and policy advocacy, training, development of practice guidance and litigation.