What is “permanency” and why should you care?

Juvenile Law Center,

Last month, Juvenile Law Center’s Child Welfare Policy Director, Jenny Pokempner, and Youth Fostering Change alum, Labriah Morgan, testified at a Philadelphia City Council hearing on youth homelessness. The hearing was well attended by many advocacy organizations, many of whom echoed consistent messages: youth homelessness is a huge, poorly documented problem, and youth in foster care are at a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness after age 18.

Nationally, about 23,000 foster youth age out of care each year.

In Philadelphia alone, 1,165 foster youth aged out of care between 2014-2015. Of those, 814 lacked a permanent residence and 786 did not have a permanent “life connection.”

Youth homelessness is multifaceted, complex, and very different from adult homelessness. For youth, homelessness can mean sleeping on the street or in cars, jumping from couch to couch, or going to a party just to have a place to stay for a night. Because homeless youth are vulnerable to sex trafficking and other abuse, they try very hard to stay hidden from the public.

So, who are these “invisible” youth? Many homeless youth are former foster youth who aged out of the child welfare system without permanent family connections. Youth who age out of foster care often leave the system without a realistic plan for housing or covering their finances and with no reliable adults to support them in early adulthood.

When faced with housing instability, foster youth often have to make tough choices with long-term, life-altering consequences. For example, many youth must choose between pursuing their education or paying their rent. This could mean putting off their education indefinitely and derailing their plans to pursue a self-sustaining career.

While it may be invisible to the general public, this experience is all too common. In one study, 19% of foster youth reported that they had been homeless at some point after they aged out at age 18. If we hope to reduce and eventually eliminate youth homelessness, then we have to reform the child welfare system. That means prioritizing permanency for youth in foster care, especially older youth who are at a higher risk of becoming homeless.


Above: Philadelphia City Council hearing on youth homelessness. Jump to 1:13 to hear Labriah's testimony. Jennifer's testimony starts at 2:31.


What is permanency and what does it mean for older youth in foster care?

A major contributor to youth homelessness nationwide is the failure of the child welfare system to find permanency for all youth in care. Most people recognize that the average young person is not prepared to be fully independent until their mid-twenties, but state foster care systems, which serve the least advantaged and most unsupported youth, end services as early as age 18. In this context, permanency for older foster youth is clearly an essential part of transitioning into adulthood and achieving educational and professional success. 

Simply put, “permanency” means family.  It means having positive, healthy, nurturing relationships with adults who provide emotional, financial, moral, educational, and other kinds of support as youth mature into adults. Ideally, permanency takes the form of a relationship that has a legal component that provides a parent-child relationship. Older youth, regardless of age, need and deserve to be connected to a permanent family and support system that both lifts them up and cushions them if they fall.

How can we help foster youth achieve permanency and avoid homelessness?

“I aged out of foster care at age 21, and I wasn’t financially stable. There was no way I could finish school and obtain a job that would financially support me.

I had to pay rent, food for me to eat, basic hygiene necessities, and for textbooks that my financial aid didn’t cover.

I reached out to social workers, school advisors, and counselors for help but received none. There was no room for me at my grandparents’ house, and my parents didn’t have the means to help me.”

- Labriah Morgan, former foster youth, Youth Fostering Change

There are many things advocates, policymakers, and child welfare professionals can do to help create permanency and avoid homelessness for older youth in care.

  • Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocates identified several steps child welfare agencies can take now to help these youth, such as recruiting more resource families for older youth, connecting youth with mentors, and ensuring youth are in safe, supportive, and age-appropriate placements.
  • Legislators can enact laws and policies to maximize the effective implementation of the permanency provisions of  the Strengthening Families Act (SFA, 2014), a federal law that requires states to double down on efforts to find families for old youth in foster care. California’s pending bill, AB 1879, is a model piece of legislation that would require that child centered permanency services be provided to all youth for whom permanency has not yet been achieved.
  • Pennsylvania’s Act 94 requires that permanent connections be identified for all youth with the permanency goal of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement.
  • Judges and attorneys must ensure that permanency is discussed at each court hearing, and that the new and old permanency and transition planning requirements are effectively carried out. Challenges should be made, including appeals, if the law is not being followed.

These kinds of reforms recognize that foster youth – like all young adults – need family and supportive adults to help them succeed as they transition to adulthood. By helping older foster youth achieve permanency, we can ensure that all youth have a safe place to call home.


Image credit: "Family Jump" by Evil Erin, licensed via CC 2.0.