Q&A: American Youth Policy Forum on Transitioning Youth from Foster Care

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A young person shakes hands with a job interviewer

One quarter of former foster youth experience homelessness in the four years after they exit the child welfare system. Youth are suddenly on their own with no supports to help them navigate the rest of their journey into adulthood. Unemployment and difficulty continuing their education are also common problems for former foster youth.

Last month, the American Youth Policy Forum published a policy brief about how to better help transitioning youth. “Creating Access to Opportunities for Youth in Transition from Foster Care” identifies three key areas where youth need support: sustainable social capital (more on what this means below), permanent housing and connections, and opportunities for postsecondary education.

Authors Erin Russ and Garet Fryar spoke with NCFY about their findings and how they might apply to youth-serving organizations working with homeless youth.

NCFY: How did you determine the three areas of support transitioning youth need? And is there any one area that you found is more critical? Is there an area that is often neglected more than the others?

Erin Russ: We determined the three areas of support through conversations with researchers, state-level policymakers, and practitioners in the field. We wanted to know, based on their observations and experiences, where the biggest needs and opportunities are to support youth in transition from foster care. Data also played a role in leading us to these three areas. The outcomes of transitioning youth for postsecondary educational attainment, homelessness, employment, and financial stability are indicative of areas where programs and policies can play a stronger role in connecting these young people to opportunity.

Originally, we did not include “sustainable social capital” as one of the three areas of need. Instead, we were going to write about the need for caring, supportive adult mentors. After several conversations with programs and state-level policymakers, we broadened the area of need to sustainable social capital. We felt like this captured the lack of networks and connectedness that transitional youth often lack, and the support they benefit from when they learn the skills to navigate resources and build relationships.

Garet Fryar: We thought of each area of support as foundational building blocks dependent upon each other, each aiding these youth reach success.

NCFY: What obstacles have you found organizations face when offering services within the three areas of support you’ve identified?

Russ: Coordination of services and systems is a big obstacle. As AYPF documented in the brief, many of the services that transitioning youth can benefit from are delivered through different and often siloed agencies. Housing and education are two examples of this.

Fryar: We found that a partnership between organizations was the best way to ensure that youth receive as much assistance as possible in our three areas of support. Partnerships also act as a defense against lack of continuous and sustainable funding; funding streams can be more easily blended and braided. For example, Mpowering My Success is a university program that not only works between departments to help youth who were formally in foster care attend higher education, have safe housing, and find on-campus jobs, but also works with community partners to provide funding for the program.

NCFY: What are some specific steps youth workers and organizations that serve homeless youth can take to help ease the transition?

Fryar: All organizations should make their program and supports as widely known as possible through tactics such as in-person outreach, social media, and information sharing with high school leadership and case workers. Once youth are interested in their program, youth workers should encourage youth to honestly share what their housing situation is and ask what exactly the youth needs. Once the youth’s needs are known, contracts between the youth and the organization can outline a specific agreement of services. For example, the organization can provided free or reduced housing for the first three months as long as the youth provides proof that they are working, then the organization can slowly increase the rent to acclimate the youth.

If the organization is a college or university that can provide housing, then youth workers should sit down with youth and help them, step-by-step, apply for scholarships. This is a great way for youth to learn what’s available for them and what their rights are as a person who was once in foster care.

More From NCFY

Read about FYSB and the Children's Bureau's joint guidance on foster care youth in runaway and homeless youth programs.

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