Child Welfare Legislative Policy Newsletter: Decem

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December 2010 - Special Edition: Permanency for Older Youth in Foster Care

This special edition will focus on permanency for older youth in foster care, the barriers this population faces, and ideas that states are exploring to address these obstacles.

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Older Youth in Foster Care: Challenges and Opportunities

By Amy Taylor

Nationally, in 2009, approximately 424,000 children lived in foster care1. Foster care is intended to serve as a temporary placement for children who have been abused or neglected. Ideally, children will leave foster care to live with a permanent, safe family; however, this does not always happen. In 2009, nearly 80 percent of the children leaving foster care at the age of 18 exited to emancipation and had no permanent family2.

Although foster care is an essential protection for some children, removing a child from his or her family can have traumatic effects on the child and family. The longer a child remains in foster care and the more placement changes he or she experiences can makes things worse. Research shows that older youth in foster care often leave the child welfare system with few supports, and are more likely to: have difficulty finding employment, be homeless, rely on public assistance and have children out of wedlock. All too often, permanent homes for adolescents in foster care are not found. The child welfare system has instead focused its efforts on preparing adolescents to live independently, without any legal relationship with an adult committed to support the youth financially and emotionally until adulthood and beyond.

Older Youth in Foster Care3
  • 49% found employment four years after leaving foster care.
  • 30% experienced mental health problems.
  • 25% experienced homelessness.
  • 30% of young men were incarcerated by age 19.
  • 37% completed high school or earned a GED.
  • 24% had no earned income the first two years after leaving foster care.

The following list includes barriers older youth in foster care may face along with policies states are exploring to address these obstacles.   

Permanent Homes for Older Foster Youth 

Federal child welfare statutes require that child welfare agencies make reasonable efforts to achieve a permanent plan for every child in foster care. The majority of children who leave care reunify with their birth families, are adopted or live with relative guardians. Some youth in care, however, are assigned Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) goal instead.

In general, an APPLA goal allows the child welfare agency to maintain care, custody and supervision of the child until adulthood. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 designated APPLA, previously known as long-term foster care, as the least preferred permanency goal for children. It is to be selected only when a court determines that there are “compelling reasons” why reunification, adoption, legal guardianship, or a relative placement are not in the child’s best interest. The term “compelling reasons” is not defined in federal law, leaving it to states to determine the circumstances under which APPLA may be used.

Often APPLA is used because achieving a more permanent goal for these young people is difficult and there are few, if any, policy constraints limiting this practice. As a result, in 2009 approximately 38 percent of 16 and 17 year olds in foster care had a case plan goal of APPLA4. These young people are highly likely to leave care without a permanent family on which to rely for support and guidance as they face the considerable challenges of adulthood.

States are working to reduce the use of APPLA and to ensure that when it is used, the goal is as planned and permanent as possible. Some jurisdictions narrowly define the types of cases for which APPLA may be appropriate and establish rigorous procedures for approval of APPLA. When it is appropriate, some agencies are required to ensure that the foster children have permanent connections with a network of caring adults and to review APPLA cases at regular intervals to determine if a different plan is appropriate.

State lawmakers have begun to enact laws to govern how and when APPLA may be used. Ohio’s statute  (Ohio Revised Code, Section 2151.353) specifies that a planned permanent living arrangement is an option only if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that it is in the best interest of the child. New York (New York Family Court Act § 1089) stipulates that if APPLA is selected for a child, the case plan must include documentation that an adult is willing to be a significant connection and permanent resource for the child.

Legal Orphans

When parental rights are terminated, and a foster child has not yet been matched with an adoptive home, the child becomes a legal orphan within the child welfare system.

The average age of children waiting to be adopted from foster care is just over 8 years old, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System5 (AFCARS). AFCARS trends indicate that when waiting children reach between 8 and 9 years old, they are more likely to continue to wait for a family than be adopted. More than one quarter of the 114,000 children waiting for adoption are between the ages of 13 and 17. Data suggest, however, that youth who enter foster care as teenagers are highly unlikely to be adopted. Additionally, approximately 65 percent of youth who emancipate from foster care maintain contact with or reunite with a parent or family member even if parental rights have been previously terminated.

Recognizing that parents and situations can change, eight states have laws that allow courts to reinstate parental rights that were involuntarily terminated, giving some youth a permanent home who would have previously emancipated from care with no legal family relationship. Generally, a court must find that the child is unlikely to find a permanent home through adoption or legal guardianship. Other provisions include waiting periods for filing a petition for reinstatement; restrictions on who may file; minimum age requirements for the young person; and, requirements for a finding that reinstatement is in the best interest of the child and that the birth parent has adequately addressed the conditions that led to termination of parental rights. Some states require a trial home visit before a decree of reinstatement can be issued and require that the child welfare agency assess the readiness for reinstatement. For more information on these state statutes, click here.

Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act

The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (Fostering Connections) contains both optional and mandatory provisions that can promote permanent homes for older children. To view a summary of Fostering Connections, click here.

Subsidized Guardianship

Subsidized guardianships provide financial assistance to caretakers who assume legal guardianship of a child in out-of-home care. The child is discharged from foster care, and the courts transfer legal custody of the child from the state to the guardian. To help the family meet the needs of the children, the state provides a monthly stipend to families that is equal to or less than the monthly foster care payment. Some states provide additional services to support these families including access to medical, mental health, and social services typically available to adoptive families. 

Fostering Connections provides federal matching funds for monthly payments to relatives who assume permanent guardianship of a child in foster care. Prior to the enactment of Fostering Connections, most states funded such programs solely with state money, with TANF or through Title IV-E foster care waivers. States can now draw down federal IV-E guardianship funds for eligible children who have been in the care of licensed relative foster parents for at least six months. Approximately 20 states have opted to take advantage of this program by filing amended IV-E state plans.

Subsidized guardianship is often an appropriate option for older children. Since adoption requires termination of parental rights, many of these young people and their relative caregivers resist formal adoption, yet they still need financial, social, educational and medical support for the children in their care.  

Relative Identification, Notice and Placement

Fostering Connections requires states to notify all grandparents and adult relatives when a child is removed from home and inform them of their options to become caregivers, including the option, if available, of becoming a relative guardian. For older youth, relative placements are less disruptive than other kinds of placements and provide a greater degree of stability. With the appropriate supports, relatives can become permanent caregivers through adoption or guardianship. In any event, they can provide lasting connections and support as the child faces the challenges of adolescence and adulthood. 

Extension of Foster Care Beyond Age 18

For states that elect to participate, Fostering Connections provides federal funding to offset the cost of extending care for children beyond age 18 who meet one or more education or work-related criteria. To date, nine states have introduced or enacted legislation to extend foster care according to the federal act. Illinois, for example, enacted legislation to enable former foster youth up to age 21 who encounter significant hardships after leaving care to re-engage with the state child welfare system in order to secure services (2009 HB 4054, P.A. 581). California enacted legislation to extend care to specific children up to 21 years of age (2010 AB 12). 

Supporting Youth and Their Families After Foster Care

Services that help older youth successfully make the transition home to their biological families, into adoption, or into a legal guardianship with relatives are paramount. Such services generally fall into four categories: material assistance (financial and medical assistance); clinical services (crisis intervention, counseling, respite care, and residential treatment); educational and informational services (information and referral to community services); and support networks (support groups and social gatherings)6. Some families may be reluctant to consider a permanent placement if they believe they will lose financial or supportive services. Additionally, without these services, some potential permanent families do not succeed and the placements fail before adoption is even final. Several studies have indicated that children who are older at the time of adoption are at greatest risk of having a disrupted placement7

States have used federal adoption incentive bonus awards to improve and expand post-placement and post-adoption services. In addition, Fostering Connections provides states with the option of extending adoption and guardianship assistance to age 21 to eligible youth who exited care to adoption or guardianship at age 16 or older. Texas, for example, extends adoption assistance to a child’s adoptive parents after age 18 and until age 21 if the original adoption assistance agreement is first entered after age 16 (2009 SB 2080, Chap. 1238). Michigan allows the extension of adoption assistance for an adoptee under age 21 if certain requirements are met (2009 HB 4159, Act. 17). A review of all states' adoption programs indicates that 35 states believe their efforts to enhance services and subsidies are a promising approach8

Congregate Care Reduction

Youth who live in institutional settings are at greater risk of developing physical, emotional and behavioral problems that can lead to school failure, teen pregnancy, homelessness, unemployment and incarceration and are less likely to find a permanent home than those who live in family foster care9, 10. Many states have reduced the number of children in congregate care by changing agency practice to involve youth in decision-making upon entry into foster care, increasing the number of family foster homes equipped to deal with serious behavior issues, and creating systems of care that support birth families and prevent the need for institutional placements. Some states are using the money saved from reducing costly institutional care and reinvesting them into preventive services. Congregate care providers, in this changing environment, have begun to emphasize permanency and prevention services, rather than residential services. 


In response to the challenges older youth experience while in foster care, many states are increasing efforts to prevent the problems that bring children into care. For children who do enter care, however, states are working to move them to permanent homes as quickly as possible—primarily through reunification, subsidized guardianship or adoption. As state officials work to safely reduce the number of children in foster care, they continue to look for ways to address the problems facing older youth in foster care.



1. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System FY 2008 data, October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009.
2. Data Prepared by Data Advocacy, Casey Family Programs, 11/22/10. Data source: AFCARS FY09.
3. Courtney, M. E., Piliavin, I., Grogan-Kaylor, A., & Nesmith, A. (2001). Foster youth transitions to adulthood: A longitudinal view of youth leaving care. Child Welfare, 80(6), pp. 685-717.
4. Data Prepared by Data Advocacy, Casey Family Programs, 11/22/10. Data source: AFCARS FY09.
5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). A report to Congress on adoption and other permanency outcomes for children in foster care: Focus on older children. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau. Retrieved from:
6. Freundlich, M., & Wright, L. (2003). Post-permanency services. Retrieved July 6, 2004, from Casey Family Programs Center for Resource Family Support website:
7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). A report to Congress on adoption and other permanency outcomes for children in foster care: Focus on older children. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau. Retrieved from:
8. Macomber, J. E., Scarcella, C. A., Zielewski, E. H., & Geen, R. (2004). Foster care adoption in the United States: A state by state analysis of barriers & promising approaches. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. Retrieved February 1, 2005, from
9. Mark E. Courtney, Amy Dworsky, and Harold Pollack, When Should the State Cease Parenting? Evidence from
the Midwest Study (Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, December 2007).
10. Richard Wertheimer, Youth Who “Age Out” of Foster Care: Troubled Lives, Troubling Prospects (Washington,
D.C.: Child Trends, 2002).


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