Age-Appropriate Placements Matter in the Transition to Adulthood

Juvenile Law Center,

Note: This post is part of a series of posts recognizing National Foster Care Month. 

All children deserve to grow up in a safe place with people who care for and love them, and who guide and support them as they grow. Having that safe, stable, and nurturing place to live provides a foundation to learn, dream, and set and meet goals for the future.

Federal and state laws establish policies for foster care, which is meant to be temporary. Goals are to return children to their parents, or place them with family members, or find a home for foster youth with individuals who are committed to making a family with them. While states have made progress in reducing the number of youth in foster care, many youth—especially older youth—remain in the system. Sometimes they stay in care for many years. Far too many of these youth are not placed, as the law requires, in the least restrictive, most family-like setting; they are instead placed in group homes and institutions.

In Pennsylvania, for example, youth ages 13-21 make up 44 percent of all children in foster care. Forty-five percent of Pennsylvania foster youth ages 16-17 and 32 percent of foster youth ages 13-15 are placed in congregate care settings. Youth deserve to grow up in homes, not group homes and institutions. Not only do congregate-care settings fail to provide the stable, long-term supportive relationships that youth need, they often fail to provide youth with opportunities to be treated as individuals, or to practice many of the skills they will need for independent living.

As the percentage of older foster youth continues to grow, increased efforts must be made to find families for older youth in care and to identify placement options that provide age-appropriate opportunities and responsibilities. Older foster youth need normalcy. The child welfare system, however, does not easily provide youth with increasing freedom and responsibility. This is because the system, historically, is focused on younger children and ensuring their safety.

However, providing age- and developmentally appropriate placements for older youth that support their transition to adulthood is achievable. It also results in better outcomes.

Appropriate placement options allow youth to practice the skills they need for adulthood in more independent and flexible settings while they still have the safety and guidance of the system. Importantly, it is now possible for states to receive federal foster care funds for these placements. In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act amended the federal Social Security Act to create a new Title IV-E reimbursable placement for youth in care between the ages of 18 and 21. This placement type is known as "a supervised setting in which the individual is living independently." The federal government has given states flexibility in developing this placement setting. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been clear that appropriate settings include host homes, college dormitories, shared housing, semi-supervised apartments, and supervised apartments. Basically, HHS allows states to provide foster youth some of the living options to which youth who are not in care have access. (Read the federal guidance here.)

While the opportunity is now available for states to support the transition to adulthood of older youth by providing age-appropriate placements, much work needs to be done. In particular, child welfare systems must build their capacity to provide these placements.

Learn More and Take Action:

1. If you are a foster parent caring for an older foster youth, consider discussing and renegotiating the youth's rules and responsibilities to reflect age and independent living and other goals. Think about ways that you can provide a supportive setting that allows the youth room to grow and acquire skills he/she will need as an adult. Tools that can help you:

2. If you are interested in providing a living arrangement for an older youth in care, call your local child welfare agency, foster care agency, or your local Independent Living Program. You can be a foster parent, provide a host home, or provide a temporary placement for a foster youth who attends college and needs a supportive setting over school breaks.

3. If you are interested in starting a program that recruits adoptive resources for older youth, learn more about successful programs like New York's You Gotta Believe, which begins from the principle that all youth in care can have families. You Gotta Believe does targeted recruitment of families and provides extensive post-adoption support to youth and families. To learn more about successful strategies and programs for promoting the adoption of older youth, read Successful Older Child Adoption: Lessons From The Field or visit the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections' Youth Permanency resource page.

4. If you want to read more about the impact of placement on outcomes, see these publications:

5. If you are a child welfare agency or private agency and want to develop an effective continuum of older youth placement options, find out more about evidence-based programs that have proven results. Examples include:

6. If you are a child welfare agency or a policymaker, learn more about what states have done to embed in law and policy an effective and age-appropriate placement continuum for older youth. California leads the country in Fostering Connections extended foster care implementation. The state has been very thoughtful in creating a comprehensive continuum of age-appropriate placements for older youth. The continuum includes such options as host homes, supervised apartments, dormitory living, and the most independent setting, a direct stipend to youth to cover some costs of a setting selected by the youth. Read about California's policies on placement options here.