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Partnerships, new approaches highlight forum on scaling effective practices to help former foster youth

May 31, 2016
Justice Rutherford (far right) speaks about her experience as a participant in the YVLifeSet program.

Justice Rutherford (far right) speaks about her experience as a participant in the YVLifeSet program at a forum on Capitol Hill.

Every year about 26,000 young people in the United States turn 18 and age out of foster care without ever being united with their biological families or finding a new one through adoption. They are one of the country’s most vulnerable populations, more likely to be homeless, never reach education milestones, to face unemployment and incarceration.

Last week, the American Youth Policy Forum hosted a Capitol Hill briefing highlighting the need to expand effective programs capable of helping transition-age youth overcome challenges and go on to be successful, independent adults. The forum was co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth.

Moderated by David Sanders, Ph.D, executive vice president of systems improvement for Casey Family Programs, the briefing examined the Youth Villages YVLifeSet program and ways to improve federal and state systems to better meet the needs of transition-age youth.

“This is about a system that fails to provide the kind of services and support that young people need to be able to become contributing adults,” Sanders said. “Twenty-eight percent of all children in out-of-home care are teenagers. Nearly half have been in care for two years or longer and don’t have a case plan goal that supports permanency. How do we support permanency so youth are not leaving care without families? Right now the pipeline is not very encouraging.”

On the panel were Mark Courtney, Ph.D, professor in social services administration at the University of Chicago; Mike Leach, director of independent living for Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services; Jeff Rainey, senior executive for strategic advancement at the YMCA of Greater Seattle; and Justice Rutherford, a 20-year-old YVLifeSet participant from Memphis, Tennessee.

Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler described the development of the program. By 2015, YVLifeSet had helped more than 8,000 former foster and disconnected youth in seven states and had shown significant impact in the country’s largest randomized controlled study. The organization began to study how to scale the program to reach every young person who ages out of care each year.

“It seemed like too big a hill for us to climb ourselves,” Lawler said. “And the numbers fluctuate. We know that there are young people who are 19, 20, 21 and 22 who still need help now.

“As an organization, we decided to change direction, to partner with others for the first time, to work with organizations across the country with the goal of providing effective, comprehensive services to this very vulnerable population, to every young person who needs help.”

How can federal policy improve outcomes for former foster youth?

Based on the findings of the MDRC study, our experience serving youth, and the need for a more robust evidence base on what works, Youth Villages recommends federal policies that:

  1. Fund continued research, including demonstration projects, to build a robust evidence base on what works in different contexts and settings.
  2. Provide incentives for states to invest in promising practices, such as intensive, individualized and clinically focused services and supports and to track the outcomes of these interventions.
  3. Encourage child welfare agencies to evaluate the needs of transition-age youth in their state, identify gaps in programming and collaborate with other agencies to conceptualize a more targeted and integrated continuum of services.

Courtney reviewed the evidence on interventions for transition-age youth. He is the principal investigator of the Midwest Study, the largest study of outcomes for former foster youth, and conducted multisite evaluations of foster youth programs under the Chafee Act. He also worked with MDRC for the five-year randomized evaluation of the Youth Villages program, which involved nearly 1,300 young people receiving services in Tennessee.

Most evaluations of programs showed no impact, or the studies were very small.

“The Youth Villages study dwarfs in size other evaluations,” Courtney said. “There were a number of significant impacts and the range of impacts is striking: increased earnings, reduced housing instability, a one-fifth reduction in homelessness, reduction in economic hardship, improvement in health and safety outcomes.”

The program should be tried in other settings to see what its impacts would be in different contexts, he said.

“One of the things that this study suggests to me is that we need to rethink what kind of adult support we provide to young people,” he said. “What are the implications of an intensive case management program for basic delivery of transition-age services in the country.”

The YMCA of Greater Seattle will be the first partnership using the YVLifeSet model. The YMCA chose the model after an extensive two-year study of community needs, Rainey said.

“We’re bringing a model in that has been tested, evaluated and is something we need,” he said. After failing to get a federal grant, the expansion is being funded through private philanthropy and the United Way of King County. Outcome evaluation will be done by the University of Washington.

The Seattle expansion will provide a test for the YVLifeSet model in a different environment. The YMCA already has housing, mental health services and employment assistance for this group of youth and layering YVLifeSet on top of these other programs is going to be exciting for the community, Rainey said.

Leach gave insight into what Seattle could expect. By offering comprehensive services to transition-age young people – including extension of foster care and YVLifeSet – Tennessee has achieved dramatic system improvements and is expecting to exit federal court oversight next year.

Traditional case management with a social worker seeing a young person once a month was usually not enough for this population, Leach said. YVLifeSet provides consistent intensive help for young people and is flexible and timely, he said.

“They collaborate with partners in the community; they know employers; they know the educational community,” Leach said. “YVLifeSet specialists make sure that the young people are connected to housing, education and employment.”

Because it is a public-private partnership, YVLifeSet can help young people who don’t meet traditional governmental requirements for help.

“There are a lot of young people who fall through the cracks every day in every state,” Leach said. “I see it all the time. Because of YVLifeSet, I don’t say ‘no’ to young people; I don’t have to.”

Justice Rutherford is one of the young people receiving help in Tennessee; she was a participant in the MDRC study and randomly assigned to receive help through the YVLifeSet program. Rutherford was in the foster care program for many years and then reunited with her mother.

“I went to six different schools and was homeless at one time,” she said. At 16, she became pregnant and signed herself back into foster care to receive more help. Through YVLifeSet, Rutherford meets with a specialist once each month face-to-face and has 24/7 support. She is in college, working toward a bachelor’s degree.

“There have been plenty of times when I’ve broken down in the middle of the night, crying because I felt like I wasn’t doing my best, I wasn’t making enough of myself,” she said. At those times, Rutherford reached out to her YVLifeSet specialist for support.

“I have people behind me who support me, who push me to be great, who let me know that I can be somebody,” she said.

More information about the briefing is available at from the American Youth Policy Forum. Program information is available at youthvillages.org and yvlifeset.org.

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