The ‘20s and Youth Services: A Guess at What Comes Next

The last calendar year of the ‘10s has come and gone, and the fields of child welfare and juvenile justice move on to a new decade. For the past two weeks, The Chronicle has counted down some of our top storylines from 2019.

Today, for fun, Youth Services Insider looks to the decade ahead. This is obviously guesswork, and readers should feel free to dig this column up in 2029 to demonstrate how far off we were. But here are some predictions of big things that YSI could see happening in the 2020s.

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Major Breakthroughs on Treating Trauma

The past decade has seen a growing recognition of the impact that adverse childhood experiences have later in life. This will be a decade of tremendous progress in treating and mitigating the effects of that trauma.

YSI could see a scenario where in 2029, the story of the decade in child welfare has been the accomplishments of the Houston-based Child Trauma Academy and its founder, Dr. Bruce Perry. Perry has been building the case for his Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics for decades now, an approach to improving the stress response of children and adults who experienced trauma at a young age.

We could also see this next decade bring major pharmacological and medical advances in the attempt to treat, or even cure, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The past decade saw tests on the efficacy of party drugs like ecstasy on treating PTSD, and the beta-blocker propranolol on actually walling off fearful memories for some patients.

More Finance Reform: Block Grant Option and Lookback Elimination

The Family First Prevention Services Act for the first time turned the Title IV-E entitlement spigot on for services aimed at keeping families together. Barring states with waivers, IV-E was previously reserved only for costs related to putting kids in foster care or placing them into adoptions or guardianships.

The law would not have passed without growing bipartisan support for the idea that the entitlement should not tip the scales in favor of removing children.

But true, upstream prevention – meaning efforts to address family crises before abuse or neglect has occurred – will never fit inside the IV-E entitlement. If Congress and the executive branch want that money to be available for upstream services, the option is to offer a capped allocation in exchange for more flexibility.

This has been floated a few times in the past by legislators and presidents, including the Trump administration. YSI’s sense is that a critical mass of red, purple and blue states have now had a taste of flexibility under IV-E waivers and liked it. That will be enough to back a plan where states can, but are not required to, risk less annual funding in pursuit of cash they can spend outside the IV-E rules.

It is also hard for us to imagine that the current IV-E income test – whereby a youth placed in foster care is only eligible for federal funds if his parent’s income meets a 1996 standard for poverty – will last another 10 years. By 2026, IV-E will have no income test for prevention services or adoption, which will make the antiquated income test for foster care look even more loony than it already is.

YSI expects that this change will be made with some correction in rate that renders it mostly or entirely cost neutral to Uncle Sam. The current IV-E match for foster care is at 50 percent or more in each state – this will be ratcheted down so that states are receiving less per foster youth, but are federally funded for every foster youth.

Pay for Success Fades

The early part of the last decade saw a lot of momentum around the idea of pay for success (PFS), a strategy of giving governments a free trial on proven programs in the hopes of drawing longer-term commitments to fund them. Generally, funders from philanthropy and private finance guarantee the cost of trying something out – if agreed-upon benchmarks are met, government pays back with interest. If benchmarks aren’t met, the experiment costs the government nothing.

A lot of time and money has gone into developing PFS projects. In the realms of child welfare and juvenile justice, it doesn’t seem to have yet produced the unequivocal success story that could engrain it as a standard strategy. In our humble opinion, PFS’ big moment in youth services will only come if and when a substantial project has surpassed its benchmarks, and then the government entity involved actually takes on the core service as a regular part of the budget.

That is ultimately the point of PFS – government gets a free look before making any long-term commitment. So far, it’s hard to point to a project in the child welfare or juvenile justice arenas that really measures up to this litmus test. One project that could deliver this kind of result, a venture aimed at reducing recidivism after exiting the juvenile justice system, is wrapping up in Massachusetts.

This decade will also end up being a referendum on the “big bets” taken by Blue Meridian, the oddly-named conglomerate of foundations and other grant makers that backed up dumptrucks full of money to help replicate some time-tested programs. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, YV Lifeset, Year Up, Nurse Family Partnership …these are some of the models with Blue Meridian investments that could rise to $200 million.

Unlike PFS, these scale-ups require public support; it isn’t a completely free preview. But the test of success will be the same – when Blue Meridian’s support ends, will governments continue the use of these programs?

Georgia is the Last State to “Raise the Age”

In 2019, Michigan passed legislation to raise the age of its juvenile justice system to 18. In so doing, it left three states that still consider all 17-year-olds to be adults in the eyes of the law: Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) has publicly called for inclusion of 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, and the state is in the process of closing its large juvenile incarceration facilities, and has yet to fully determine what will replace those (youth advocates are pushing for a plan that involves far fewer prison beds and far more community-based services). It is sort of nutty to recalibrate the state’s outlay of juvenile placement options and thenadd a whole new group of teens into the system, so our guess is that “raise the age” happens soon there.

Our guess is that Texas, which is also grappling with reforms of its juvenile incarceration facilities, will be the 49th state to set the age at 18. We give the Lone Star State better odds than Georgia because there is a coherent and visible campaign afoot on the issue that includes conservative groups and religious ones. This was a winning strategy in Michigan.

Once Texas raises its age, YSI predicts Georgia will follow quickly, because in the theater of public opinion, being “the only state” is a lot worse than being “one of just three states.”

At Least One State Will Completely Wall Off Juveniles from Adult Courts and Jails

“Raise the Age” gets at the most straightforward inclusion of juveniles in the adult system – considering kids younger than 18 to actually be adults. But most of the youths tried and treated as adults in America are either transferred out of juvenile jurisdiction by prosecutors or judges, or state law requires that they be tried as adults because of the severity of the offense they are accused of.

YSI believes at least one state will move to completely end the practice of shifting juveniles into the adult system, likely with some financial support from the philanthropic community. In fairness, there are probably a handful of low-population states with miniscule transfer rates now. But we predict at least one will statutorily end the practice of allowing kids to be treated as adults for certain crimes.

Researchers Will Attempt to “Control” for Race and Poverty

The last decade saw the emergence of predictive analytics, an algorithm-fueled machine learning method of guiding decision making, as an option to improve upon the standard risk assessment tools used in child welfare and juvenile justice.

But the promise of more accurate analysis is tempered by the rightful concern that “big data” will be laced with, and further imbed, the racial and economic biases that YSI could see researchers and practitioners this decade develop ways to quantify and control for the baked-in biases that plague risk assessment and prediction.

We arrive at that prediction through the following logic: There is no systemic appetite for getting rid of guided decision making, and there is no evidence thus far that you can build predictive tools without building in some bias. So all that remains in the gap is to figure out how to somehow identify and control for it.

The Supreme Court Will Condone Faith-Based Discrimination

Since the 2015 Supreme Court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage in America, 10 stateshave passed laws that allow their faith-based child welfare providers to choose who they want to serve, and who they don’t. This gives them a license to discriminate against same sex couples or unmarried people who wish to foster or adopt, or even children who identify as LGBTQ.

It seems inevitable that these laws will be challenged in different states, with different outcomes, and that the constitutionality of taxpayer-funded discrimination will be a question for the high court one day this decade. YSI expects that this Supreme Court, as presently constituted, will find these laws to be legitimate.

We Will Get Better at Helping Older Youth

Since 2010, nearly every state has developed some form of extended foster care through age 21, an attempt to ensure housing stability and other support to youth who in previous generations would have coldly aged out into adulthood at 18. Meanwhile, many states have shuttered the kind of large juvenile prisons that are associated with high rates of recidivism.

In simplistic terms, the desired outcomes for youth involved with both systems is ending up in college, being gainfully employed, or both. And this will be the decade where greater investments are made in developing or proliferating policies, programs and models that can show results on either front.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1181 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.