Health & Human Services

Helping Foster Kids Transition to Adulthood

A much-needed study will evaluate the merits of transitional living programs.
by | May 9, 2012

By now it is understood (and supported by several studies) that kids who age out of foster care generally wind up being less educated, more likely to engage in risky behavior and more likely to re-engage with human services and or criminal justice systems than other kids their age. Additionally, they're more likely to contribute to that troubling and longstanding multigenerational trend: Their kids are far more likely to follow in the same footsteps.

With roughly 25,000 kids aging out of foster care annually, and another 100,000 youth being bounced out of criminal justice facilities, programs aimed at breaking the cycle are now receiving some long-overdue attention, according to a recent white paper by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization.

With the support of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MDRC is working with University of Chicago researcher Mark Courtney to evaluate transitional living programs launched by Youth Villages, a nonprofit established in 1986 that currently serves 18,000 kids and young adults in 11 states. At the core of the program's philosophy is full engagement with children, families, schools and communities, with a focus on helping to stabilize emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families.

The MDRC and University of Chicago study will track 1,300 Tennessee kids and young adults who are either aging out of foster care or leaving juvenile justice facilities. The study will answer the rather significant question of whether youth who participate in a more intensive transitional living program are less likely to experience mental health problems, substance abuse, criminal justice involvement, unemployment, poverty, housing instability and homelessness than a control group, which will be offered access to the standard array of community-based services available in their respective neighborhoods. (While such a divide might raise obvious ethical questions, keep this in mind: The fact is there's only room in the Youth Villages program for 1,300 individuals, so the "control group" is, in essence, naturally occurring.)

According to MDRC, the fact that participants will be randomly assigned to either the more intensive services track or offered the standard array of community services guarantees highly reliable data on program effectiveness because there's no chance of "creaming," where the least troubled study participants are offered the more intensive, comprehensive Youth Villages services.

Also helping boost the study's credibility is the fact that it includes a healthy mix of males and females, various ethnic and racial backgrounds, widely varying educational backgrounds (from those with some technical or associate degrees to full-on drop outs), and young adults who are either aging out of foster care or leaving juvenile detention (roughly two-thirds of the study's subjects have been in foster care and half in a juvenile justice facility).

While an interim study won't be out until 2013 and a final report in 2015, there's preliminary evidence that the transitional living program is having a positive impact, according to the white paper's authors Sara Muller-Ravett and Erin Jacobs. Participation rates among those chosen for the more intensive transitional services are extremely high -- more than 90 percent initially, with more than 80 percent still in the program three months out.

Such robust participation rates are in part certainly due to the fact that caseworkers involved in the program carry a small load -- six to eight individuals -- and also to the fact that those receiving the more intense transitional living services get those services quickly (within a week) and frequently (at least one in-person session a week with a counselor or other professional).

In a world where resources for human services will continue to be squeezed, and in which it is arguably becoming tougher and tougher for young adults to make their way, such a long-overdue study should go a long way toward helping human services professionals identify the most effective ways to help move troubled and dislocated youth into permanency.

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