Extended Foster Care for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System? A Smart and Sensible Policy for Better Outcomes

Lisa B. Swaminathan, Esq.,
Youth outside

April is Second Chance Month—a time to highlight and confront the various legal and societal barriers that make it difficult for youth to achieve full, productive lives after they have been involved with the juvenile justice system.  Second Chance Month also provides the opportunity to shine a light on the supports that help these youth overcome barriers and grow into happy and healthy adults.

The Need for Extended Care for Youth in The Juvenile Justice System 

Extended care can be one of those supports.  Many young people rely on existing family and social networks when they are making the transition to adulthood—a process that lasts into their mid-twenties.  But, like youth in foster care or other child welfare placements, young people who are leaving the juvenile justice system may lack relationships with supportive adults or the strong community connections that they need during this critical transition period. We know that, as they move toward adulthood, youth leaving the juvenile justice system face many of the same challenges as youth in the child welfare system. Why don’t we provide justice-involved youth with more of the supports that we know would benefit them?

We know extended care works.  When youth are supported and stable, they can focus on their school, training, work, and health—all of which are essential to successful outcomes in young adulthood.  Extended care also reduces a young person’s risk for homelessness and future criminal justice involvement, which is typically high for youth leaving the juvenile justice system.

Making Extended Care Work for Youth with Juvenile Justice System Involvement

Providing effective extended care to older youth who have been in the juvenile justice system presents additional, unique challenges.  For example, youth with delinquency adjudications are more likely to have had negative experiences with state systems, and they may be more reluctant to accept extended care when they reach 18, even if they need it and are eligible.  Engaging youth in an extended care program and ensuring they understand that the program is voluntary can be challenging.  Providing extended care and services without the “stick” of probation is a tremendous culture shift.  System members and partners must be on board with the program and able to communicate its benefits to youth in an engaging way. 

California law aims to address some of the challenges with providing extended care services to the juvenile justice population. One way California offers extended care to youth with delinquency adjudications is through “transition jurisdiction.” Youth are eligible for extended care under transition jurisdiction if they were adjudicated delinquent and (1) are between 17 years and 5 months and 21 years old, (2) have met their rehabilitative goals, (3) and are in a foster placement or were in one on the day they turned 18. Youth also must meet one of the five Fostering Connections participation requirements to receive extended care.

The law seeks to provide support to youth who face the most challenges to a successful transition to adulthood, even those in the most restrictive placements.  Youth in secure detention are eligible for transition jurisdiction, provided they have a “waiting placement order” in place on their 18th birthday.  Youth leaving secure detention under transition jurisdiction have access to the same extended care placements and services as youth who are under the court’s dependency (child welfare) jurisdiction. 

The law also requires stakeholders to think more carefully about the transition needs of youth leaving the juvenile justice system and provides options so that those needs can be met.  For example, the law encourages delinquency courts to modify the youth’s jurisdiction to either dependency or transition jurisdiction before the youth turns 18 or when terminating delinquency jurisdiction at any other time. 

Finally, the law requires that caseworkers make reasonable efforts to ensure that older youth in extended care maintain eligibility by meeting one of the five participation criteria in Fostering Connections.  Youth with previous juvenile justice system involvement are at higher risk of being pushed out of the system for inability to maintain eligibility; they may need more time and support to operate in the community-based settings that foster independent living skills.

These features that make extended care more desirable are powerful tools for reducing the risk of homelessness and other poor outcomes.

Serving Youth in the Juvenile Justice System as a Core Component of Extended Care

In our blog series we talk about the importance of doing extended care right.  We must do more than create an opportunity for youth to remain in care; we need to build systems that engage youth, meet their age-appropriate needs as emerging adults, and are informed by our best research on trauma and brain development.  Addressing these needs remains a challenge for systems that were designed to serve children under age 18. 

Youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems face similar challenges during emerging adulthood. They need significant financial, moral, and social supports to transition successfully to adulthood.  Extended care is an effective way to provide a foundation to youth who do not have the help they need and who, without it, are at high risk for experiencing harms that can be costly to both them and their communities.  Making extended care available to youth involved in the juvenile justice system makes sense as an investment in youth and in equity.  We encourage states to include these young people when they design their extended care systems and to consider support for these youth a core component of what it means to do extended care right.