Fostering Successful Youth Transitions in Pennsylvania: Laying the Groundwork for Change

Jennifer Pokempner, Senior Attorney,

Annie E. Casey released the Fostering Youth Transitions Report in November of 2018. The report includes the most comprehensive data set ever collected across all 50 states to assess how young people between the ages of 14 and 21 fare as they transition from foster care to adulthood. We hope stakeholders, community members, and lawmakers take the information in the report as an urgent call for action. It clearly illustrates that we are failing older youth in the foster care system. We are not just inadequately setting them up for success; we are putting them at a disadvantage as compared to their peers entering adulthood. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, 47% of youth who are between the ages of 14 and 21 are placed in group homes and institutions. This figure should be shocking and unacceptable - we know that youth should grow up in families. They rarely thrive in group settings, and often experience harm in such restrictive environments where they rarely experience “normal” childhood experiences or the love, nurturing, and support of a parental figure. Data also shows that 32% of older youth In Pennsylvania “age out” of the system. This means that they leave the system as an adult without being reunified or placed in a family.    

If this data is a call to action, what steps should Pennsylvania and other states take to provide better support to older youth and to improve the odds that their transition to adulthood will be successful? Juvenile Law Center and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children just issued a fact sheet that presents some first steps for reform. Our specific reforms fall in two main categories:

First, law, policy and practice must be improved and enhanced so that family (permanency) for older youth is an absolute priority. The key to a successful transition to adulthood is being connected with family and a support system. No matter our age, we are all keenly aware of this truth. The material and moral support of family truly can make or break our travels on the bumpy road to adulthood. The data on the numbers of youth in the foster care system who are in group care and not families and who are “aging out” tells us that we are not prioritizing finding family for older youth. Reforms must ensure that services are provided to support and incentivize finding and sustaining family for older youth. Ensuring that financial assistance—or subsidies—extend until age 21 is one way to do this.   

Second, law, policy, and practice must ensure that older youth are provided all the services that are available to them that help them build skills as well as the relationships that can result in family. We have an array of laws and policies on the books that guarantee that youth will receive excellent planning as they age, services to prepare them for adulthood, and services that should find and connect them with family, but too often youth do not have full access to those services or they are not provided in ways that respond to the developmental needs of young adults. Reform must ensure that there are sufficient services for the 8,639 youth ages 14 to 21 in foster care in Pennsylvania, that they are high quality and young adult friendly, and that there is accountability in their delivery.   

Sadly, what the Fostering Youth Transitions Report tells us is not new information. Older youth in the foster care system have received increased attention, but there has not been a comprehensive reform agenda or the political will to radically change how we support these youth and make sure that they thrive with the support of families. It is time for that to change. The Report provides extensive hard data that makes the issue hard to ignore and should engender increased accountability. That is a responsibility we all share – it is time we took it seriously. 

About the Expert

Jennifer Pokempner is a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. At Juvenile Law Center, her work focuses on improving outcomes and opportunities for older youth in the foster care system through policy and legal advocacy at the local, state, and national levels.