A Missed Opportunity to Help Foster Youth Prepare for Adulthood

Girl in a dress holding a suitcase. Photo: Shared Justice.

We owe teens and young adults in the child welfare system permanency and support so they are prepared for adulthood. The key way we plan with them for adulthood is by creating a transition plan. As part of their permanency plan, under the law we owe them a coordinated, well-resourced assistance plan as they become adults.

We have a chance to learn critical information about how states are performing on this count. But that chance is slipping away.

 The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) requires that states provide case level data on all children in foster care.  This important data system, which has not been updated since 1993, was to be revised as a result of federal policy issued in 2016 by the Obama administration.

These revisions represented significant progress and would require the collection of data about everything from educational stability and sexual orientation to child health and protections for Native American families.

But after delaying the implementation of the new AFCARS rules, the Trump administration is now proposing to eliminate numerous data elements contained in the original plan. One of the most tragic eliminations is that of data about transition planning for youth in foster care who are at high risk of aging out of the system into adulthood. Eliminating this requirement, as the administration proposes, deprives us of crucial information about how states serve older youth who are at risk for aging out and experiencing poor adult outcomes.

A federal requirement for states to implement transition plans for older foster youth has existed since 2008, when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was signed into law by former President George W. Bush. This key component of child welfare law ensures that youth are supported in their transition to adulthood, beginning with planning at age 14 and continuing alongside permanency planning, until the youth leaves the system and a final plan of transition must be completed before discharge.

But AFCARS does not collect any information related to transition planning despite this important requirement being in law for more than a decade. Recent data reveals that states continue to struggle to meet the needs of transition age youth. On measures related to permanency and skill building, transition age youth fail to receive the services they are entitled to and achieve the outcomes that put them in the best position to thrive as adults.

Under Obama’s plan for an AFCARS update, states would simply need to report whether a transition plan exists and when it was completed. Collecting data on whether a youth has a transition plan is a very basic, but vital piece of information. It will help ensure that our systems appropriately track and respond to the needs of transition age youth and also serve as a catalyst for improving the provision of services to youth in accordance with legal requirements.

While the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) provides some information about outcomes and service delivery for transition age youth, it does not collect information on all youth as AFCARS does. It also does not collect information about the transition plan itself.

Whether a youth has a transition plan is information that is easily accessible to all child welfare systems and is absolutely essential to serve young people. It should be a core and non-negotiable data element that is collected for all youth if we want to support them in their transition.

The 2016 AFCARS plan was the result of debate, discussion and the consideration of years of research and practice insights. It represents a realistic and do-able plan to improve an outdated data system so  the child welfare system can, like most other fields, effectively use the power of data to improve our systems. The transition planning data element is one among many data elements that are at great risk of not being included in the AFCARS system.

We will go in the wrong direction and further fail older youth if we refuse to require the collection of this data.

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 Jenny Pokempner is a senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center.

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