Transitional Housing Program Plus-Foster Care is a model approved by California in 2010 as the highest-end support system for 18- to 21-year-old foster youth, a residential program that offers practical and emotional support to teens who could not return home and were never placed with an adoptive family or guardian.
In 2012, as foster care was extended to include this older age group, not one county used THPP-FC. The following year wasn’t much better: 273 youths across the whole state were referred in 2013. An overhaul to California’s state-county fiscal relationship was playing out, and the licensing process for providers seeking to run the model was slow.
The number shot up to 1,031 in 2014, and to 1,436 this year. So on the simple gauge of “referrals to,” THPP-FC’s growth is starting to prove successful and is a large reason why California has cut the number of youth aging out at 18 by half.
Is it making a difference? Even its most vociferous proponents admit that nobody knows. And in commendable fashion, some of them are pushing to find out.
“We’re in the dark,” said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation, who was among the chief architects of California’s expansion to 21 on foster care.
The expansion began in earnest with the passage of Assembly Bill 12 (AB 12) in 2010. “To date, there is no way to understand if we are hitting the mark,” she said, on a conference call with providers and advocates.
It is unlikely, of course, that three years of added support under THPP-FC could be worse than sending a teen in need out into the world alone. And the model guarantees a more watchful eye over vulnerable teens than, say, Supervised Independent Living Placements (SILP), a placement option for older youth that entails almost no supervision.
But there is a difference between improving a youth’s prospects for adulthood and just “lengthening the runway,” as Lemley described it, “giving them three important extra years but no improvement.”
The expansion of foster care in California was not done just to buy time, though. The mission, according to Lemley, was to “ensure that young adults leave foster care with social, emotional and practical skills to achieve their potential and succeed.”
Among the commission’s specific goals for older youth who stayed in care:
- Obtaining a high school degree
- Attending college or job-training programs
- Earning a living wage
- Connection with caring adults
- Ability to pay bills and rent
- Good health
At the moment, there is zero concrete evidence that THPP-FC providers are helping youth achieve with school, jobs, and managing their lives. The reason for the uncertainty should be familiar to those involved in youth services: the government isn’t asking.
Many of the THPP-FC providers collect information about participants, but the counties and the state have not asked them to share it in the hopes of aggregation or analysis. State-level reporting captures only the basics: age, sex, county of origin, and length of stay in foster care.
John Burton Foundation is trying to tie that knowledge together. On a recent call with California advocates and providers, Lemley pushed for them to dump internal tracking systems in favor of a common outcomes measurement system, built by Burton with private funding, that could synthesize the data.
The new Burton gauge is free, secure and available online. It mirrors an existing tool for younger transitional housing clientele that Burton built years ago with funds from two foundation grants.
The goal is to get enough providers bought into switching that Burton can assess outcomes for one-third of THPP-FC youth.
“We should be expecting to see some outcomes,” Lemley said. But the only figures available are “just basic demographics…nothing about quality.”
In our opinion, Burton deserves kudos for pushing real accountability. Because actually knowing outcomes has political and financial ramifications.
Sure there is potential windfall: if THPP-FC is yielding big gains for its clients, providers could see an infusion of referrals and dollars. And if the opposite is true, the best case is a lessons-learned situation where the model improves through some early failure.
But worst case, though, is waning interest in the model by counties. Under the new fiscal world order in California, there is no single pot of funds for THPP-FC. Each of the 58 counties gets to decide if the model is worth it.
Why pay for this intervention, a county might query, if paying for a SILP is way cheaper? Hard to argue with that if THPP-FC isn’t delivering on real outcomes.
And that would be a tragic trend if it happened. The expectation at the outset of AB 12 was that SILP would be the exception, reserved for the most prepared of teens who would otherwise be aging out, and THPP-FC would be there for the majority of teens in that scenario, who really needed support from professionals. Already, the early returns refute that expectation.
The safe play is to not answer questions that aren’t being asked. The right thing to do is what Burton’s proposing.