More Sophisticated Transition Planning Needed for Foster Youth with Complex Needs

SP2 Logo Tagline 1 Final BlackYouth who age out of foster care face obstacles like homelessness, unemployment and poverty.

Think about how much harder it is for young people with complex needs like a chronic illness or an intellectual disability. Youth with complex needs require extra support when they exit the foster care system at age 18 or 21, depending on the state, but there is too often little or no support.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 requires that a case plan and transition planning for successful adulthood start at age 14 and include the youth in this plan. While this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done for youth with complex needs in preparation for aging out of care.

In 2014 more than 22,000 youth aged out of foster care, according to the most recent AFCARS report.

Youth involved in the child welfare system often present with complex physical and mental health, developmental and psychosocial problems from a childhood of adversity and trauma, according to a 2015 article in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal. This is especially true for youth who were removed from their home and are at risk of aging out of care.

The limited studies conducted on this population show that having a disability amplifies difficulties during the transition out of foster care, according to a 2013 article in the Journal of Public Child Welfare.

“Too often the child welfare system simply fails to prepare these young people for life on their own,” said Karen Lindell, Skadden Fellow at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Penn. “Many youth with disabilities are wrongly presumed to be unfit for family-based placements, and so they grow up in group homes or institutions. These restrictive settings provide less interactions with the community, and fail to teach the independent living skills necessary to succeed in adulthood.”

Placements are mandated to be in the least restrictive environment to meet the child’s needs according to the recent article in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal. In a restrictive environment, these youth do not have familial or supportive adult interactions.

“If I had to pick one thing that can make the biggest difference for a youth aging out of care with a complex need, it would be the presence of a supportive adult,” Lindell said.

“Youth with complex needs require even more support, yet they are often discharged from care at 18 or 21 and expected to succeed completely on their own. We need to put more effort toward helping these youth develop mentor relationships and community connections before they leave care,” Lindell said.

This is where planning is important in placing youth with complex needs in an environment where they can receive adult support. This planning should not start the year before the youth is about to age out.

“One of the key messages we try to get out is that transition planning is a process, not a discrete event,” Lindell said. Lindell said her agency often receives calls about youth with complex needs who are weeks away from aging out of care and have no place to go. In such a short amount of time it can be impossible to get the necessary supports to avoid homelessness.

The Juvenile Law Center uses legal strategy to affect change more dramatically. Lindell’s fellowship project focuses on developing legal strategies to improve outcomes for older youth with disabilities as they transition out of the child welfare system.

One youth was referred to the Juvenile Law Center for help as she was about to turn 21 and had no place to live after her pending transition out of care. She also needed to be connected to adult services to support her due to an intellectual disability.

The Juvenile Law Center brought together all of the supports in the youth’s life including her therapist, child welfare caseworker, child advocate, and many more along with members of their own team to help this youth.

After a discussion with each member of the youth’s support system, the team was able to come up with a list of goals in order to help her transition successfully. This included an action plan as well as where the services and funding would come from.

Lindell said that the Juvenile Law Center tries to identify a model of good practice for a specific issue and then it works with other agencies and organizations to implement the model. One program that has been created is an interagency team model in Philadelphia that has made a difference for many young people.

The Juvenile Law Center is currently advocating for child welfare agencies to implement this type of collaborative, interagency approach as part of the youth’s transition planning process.


Screenshot 2016-02-24 15.57.11Abigail Wilson is an Advanced Standing MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is interested in child welfare policy change, specifically around issues of child abuse and neglect, poverty, and the foster care system. Her current field placement is at the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law. Abigail hopes to continue to work within the child welfare field.


This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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1 Comment

  1. The writer and contributors to the article hit the mark when noting the inconceivable challenges that aging out youth face – regardless of the disability. Yes, supportive services are helpful, even mentors; but the real answer is to find these young people a parent – someone who will always be there for them, no matter what.

    Paul Snellgrove
    You Gotta Believe – The Older Child Adoption & Permanency Movement, Inc.

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