Most older youth (ages 14 and over) in foster care enter care as teenagers due to parental neglect or behavior problems. The Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First Act), signed into law in February 2018, marks a fundamental shift in federal funding priorities for child welfare and provides several opportunities for states to better support older youth to stay with their families. The Family First Act includes provisions allowing states to use federal Title IV-E funding to support older youth in foster care to live in family settings, safely care for their own children if pregnant/parenting, and access expanded independent living services. Importantly, the Family First Act also funds states’ efforts to prevent older youth from entering care. However, more research is needed to understand effective prevention models that meet the unique needs of older youth before the full potential of the Family First Act can be reached.
During the transition from adolescence to adulthood, older youth typically seek greater independence by pushing boundaries and taking risks. Without accessible, developmentally appropriate supports, families may struggle to meet the needs of youth at risk of entering foster care. Preventing older youth from entering foster care would reap enormous benefits, as older youth are more likely than their younger peers to be placed in congregate care and age out (reach the age of majority) without a permanent family. Congregate care placement can increase the risk for delinquency, low educational attainment, and placement instability. When older youth age out of foster care, they experience an increased risk for adverse adult outcomes detrimental not only to themselves but also costly to society. If more youth are able to remain with their families while receiving high-quality prevention services, these outcomes may be avoided.
To ensure that prevention services are of high quality and meet the needs of youth and their families, the Family First Act requires that all federally funded prevention services have evidence that they work. Programs rated as promising, supported, or well-supported by the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse are eligible for federal funding. The Clearinghouse recently released evidence ratings for 12 programs, only two of which specifically serve older youth and qualify for federal reimbursement: Functional Family Therapy (FFT) and Multisystemic Therapy (MST) (both rated as well-supported). While research shows that effective prevention programs for older youth like FFT and MST have features in common—such as being intensive and family-based, identifying and building natural supports, and addressing family and youth interactions with multiple systems (e.g., child welfare, education, juvenile justice, and health care)—there are few programs for older youth with the established evidence base to be included in the Clearinghouse.
While FFT and MST have demonstrated sustained positive effects when used with older youth, they will not meet the needs of all youth and families, and more research is needed to build a robust, evidence-based continuum of developmentally appropriate services for older youth. Expanding the service array for older youth will allow child welfare agencies to use a more tailored, family-centered approach. The Family First Act offers an important avenue to deepen our understanding of what works for older youth by requiring that states submit a well-designed and rigorous evaluation strategy for each prevention program or service they plan to deliver using Title IV-E funds.
The Family First Act presents new opportunities to fund services that prevent older youth from entering care, and highlights the importance of partnerships between researchers, system leaders, families, and program developers in building an array of evidence-based services responsive to the unique needs of this population. While states are the key implementers of the Family First Act, the entire child welfare stakeholder community has the responsibility to ensure that programs are being developed and rigorously evaluated to ensure they meet the unique needs of older youth and their families. To do this, though, more research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention programs for older youth. The Family First Act’s commitment to high-quality prevention services holds potential to safely support more youth to stay with their families and make the transition to adulthood successfully.
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