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National policy experts panel discusses YVLifeSet’s effectiveness in Capitol Hill roundtable

May 22, 2015
Mark Courtney,  a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, was the principal investigator for a key study of the Youth Villages YVLifeSet program.

Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, was the principal investigator for a key study of the Youth Villages YVLifeSet program. More photos below.

A panel of national policy and research experts met on Capitol Hill May 20 before an audience of state and federal policymakers to discuss evidence that the Youth Villages YVLifeSet program improves outcomes for former foster youth.

[You can watch the entire roundtable discussion at the bottom of this post.]

Hosted by Results for America and Youth Villages, the event featured researchers from national social services research nonprofit MDRC and the University of Chicago, who presented the results of the largest study to date conducted on a program helping former foster youth transition into adulthood in the United States. The rigorous, randomized trial shows promising results and implications in multiple areas for how to effectively help one of the country’s most vulnerable populations – the 23,000 young people who turn 18 and age out of foster care systems each year.

“It is the largest, rigorous evaluation ever conducted for services for this population,” said Dr. Erin Valentine, lead author of the MDRC study.

Researchers followed more than 1,300 young people who aged out state custody in Tennessee who were randomly assigned to receive either Youth Villages’ YVLifeSet services or other available services in the community. The one-year results from the study showed that the YVLifeSet program increased participants’ economic well-being and earnings, improved mental health, and decreased the likeliness of homelessness and domestic or partner violence. One-year results of the program did not show statistically significant impacts in education, criminal involvement or social support.

“Overall, YVLifeSet had a number of positive impacts on important outcomes,” Valentine said. “As far as the size of the impacts, they are consistent with the type of individualized program that this is. In addition, the impacts are very important. This is the only program that has been found to be effective through rigorous research across a wide range of issues for these very vulnerable young people.”

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, opened the roundtable discussion, which was moderated by Jim Shelton, former deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Education and a senior fellow at Results for America. Panelists included Betsy Brand, executive director of the American Youth Policy Forum; Jennifer Brooks, a director at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices; Mark Courtney, the principal investigator for the study and a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration; and Paul Toro, professor in the Department of Psychology at Wayne State University.

“This intervention is intensive, but it’s also targeted to the problem the young person has,” Toro said. “I’m a firm believer that when we have people with complex problems, you need this kind of flexible approach. Each one has different needs, they have multiple needs, and you need to work with whatever they need most.”

MDRC will issue a report on the two-year outcomes and a cost-benefit analysis in 2016.

Three things set the YVLifeSet program apart from others, Valentine said. “First, the program is highly intensive. The caseloads of the YVLifeSet specialists are only about eight youth, and the specialists meet weekly with each youth. In addition, the program is highly individualized to the needs and goals of each youth. It is clinically focused so there is oversight by clinical supervisors, and there’s also an emphasis on using evidence-informed tools.”

The impacts on housing stability are significant, Valentine said. “This is not a brick-and-mortar program. Housing is not provided directly. And in sub-group analysis, we found the program is equally effective across a wide range of different youth, those coming from foster care or juvenile justice, in rural or urban settings.”

She said second-year follow-up will be important. “Will the program youth continue to be employed at higher rates than the control group? With more time, will impacts show up in other areas such as education or criminal involvement?”

Courtney detailed other randomized trials of other programs for this population that had not shown any benefits.

“This program [YVLifeSet] is very intensive,” he said. “It turns out with these young people, light touch programs may not work so well. This program had an impact on employment, even though it’s not an employment program. It’s not designed specifically to be an employment program, but by intensively engaging young people, it had an impact on earnings.”

It’s also important that the program will seem familiar to child welfare and juvenile justice leaders who may consider it for use in their locations, Courtney said.

“Case management is something that these systems that we’re trying to reform are very familiar with,” he said. “They all have them. They just don’t have something that looks like this — that is this intensive and individualized.”

Youth Villages offers the YVLifeSet program from offices in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oregon in addition to Tennessee. In Tennessee, the program is offered statewide to all young people aging out of state custody through a public-private partnership between the state and Youth Villages’ donors. Tennessee is the first state to offer the program to 100 percent of youth aging out. A question on possible replication of the program in other areas went to Toro.

“Yes. It can be replicated,” he said. “You need the political and funding will. It’s quite amazing that a whole state is doing this, and there’s no reason not to do it in other states.”

Brooks said the National Governors Association has been working with the Jim Casey Initiative and others on how to support young people who are transitioning to adulthood.

“We’ve also been doing a lot of work with governors about how we use more evidence-based practices to deliver results,” she said. “This study combines two issues that governors care deeply about. What this study gives us is one of the first times when we’re actually seeing something that really can work, and, fundamentally, governors care about outcomes. That’s their primary interest.”

The big challenge involves cost, Brooks said.

“This was done in Tennessee through a true public-private partnership with philanthropic connections,” she said. “The question for scaling becomes: how do you scale that … That is a big issue for states and the federal government. How do we take funding to build more holistic supports and fund outcomes? If you look at this study, some of the impacts are about cost savings in other systems. How do we take these very bureaucratic funding streams that may only be able to fund less-intensive models and start putting them together toward better outcomes?”

Federal and state governments are often asking providers to use evidence-based practices now, Brooks said.

“But we haven’t thought about what that means for whether we’re funding things at the level of intensity required to get outcomes. And then what we find is that people implement evidence-based practices very poorly because they have to scale down for costs. So we have to have really good conversations about what this study means for how we think about what is required to get positive outcomes for this population.”

The solution is creativity in funding, Brand said. “I think the kind of performance partnerships now being done by the Obama administration may be an example of how to combine funding streams in communities. There is a huge challenge for people who are managing programs at the state level in how to figure out how to connect the funds.”

She focused on sustainability. “It takes funding, capacity and accountability – measuring for outcomes.”
Initiatives that go back 15 years to the Bush administration also show the way, Brand said. “There are pilots that allow communities to take funding that they already have and use it in a much more creative and flexible way.”

Courtney said that funding through the federal government is available to states now. “I don’t want to miss the opportunity to use the money that we’re already spending on this population. We are spending $140 million a year and states are matching some through the Chafee program. This is a program that actually fits reasonably well with our existing systems – unlike a lot of evidence-based interventions we have. Partnerships between Youth Villages and other public agencies are going to be very important.”

For more information on YVLifeSet and MDRC’s study of the program, visit

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