Transition to Adulthood: What We Know (and What We Don’t) about Young People with Foster Care Experience from the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD)

Research BriefChild WelfareAug 20 2020

The transition to adulthood usually occurs gradually from the ages of 16 to 25, a stage of life often referred to as emerging adulthood. It is marked by a transitionary period of becoming more independent in all areas of life (e.g., finances, relationships, education, employment) and significant brain development in the regulatory, relationship, and reward centers. During this time, all young people need the opportunity to try new things and explore their identities within a loving and supportive environment. However, this is not always an option for young people who have experienced foster care.

Unfortunately, by the time young people age out of care, the foster care system has failed to reunify them with their parents or find them another legal, permanent family. Young people who have aged out of foster care have most likely lost access to an array of resources and services that previously supported them in care, and must navigate obstacles in their transition to adulthood alone; these include challenges to securing stable housing and accessing and completing high school and post-secondary education, among others. These challenges not only affect the young people who experience them but also impact society. Services, supports, and permanent connections must be provided to prevent these adverse young adult outcomes.

Federal policies impacting the transition to adulthood for youth in foster care

Policymakers, practitioners, and state child welfare systems need to understand how young people with foster care experience are faring during their transition to adulthood. Throughout the past three decades, several federal policies have been passed to support young people transitioning from foster care. The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 allocated federal funding for states to provide independent living services (ILS) for young people at risk of aging out of foster care, and established the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) to track receipt of those services and (for the first time) associated young adult outcomes. ILS are meant to teach life skills such as budgeting and cooking, and to provide support through healthy relationship classes and mentoring. NYTD is the only national data set on this population and has the potential to powerfully shape child welfare policy and practice for older youth. The Family First Prevention Services Act amended Chafee to allow for ILS to be provided to any young person ages 14 to 21 in all states, and up to age 23 in some states.[1] The Family First Act, passed in 2018, also requires the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to submit a report to Congress on young adult outcomes using NYTD. The First NYTD Report to Congress was released in February 2020.

Composition and limitations of NYTD

NYTD has two components: the Services File and the Outcomes File. The NYTD Services File is comprised of administrative data provided every six months on all young people who receive at least one federally funded ILS. The data include information on services such as financial education and mentoring, as well as basic demographic data. The Outcomes File contains information on basic demographics and young adult outcomes (e.g., educational attainment, homelessness, employment) from a survey of all young people who are 17 years old and in foster care during the baseline federal fiscal year (FFY). Those who complete a baseline survey are eligible to complete follow-up surveys at ages 19 and 21.[2] Importantly, these data provide information on young adult outcomes, including for those who age out and those who are reunified with their families or find other permanent connections at ages 17 or 18. The NYTD data have enabled researchers to examine the impact of extended foster care on older youth, the rates of rapid repeat childbirth (e.g., having a child at age 17 and another at age 19; or age 19 and then age 21), and the connection between receiving independent living services and young adult outcomes, among many other topics. In turn, this research has been used by advocates and state legislatures to drive critical policy change (extending foster care) and organizational practices (increasing access to certain types of ILS). While the NYTD Outcomes File provides a wide breadth of data with the potential to improve the lives of young people, it is not without limitations:

  • Constrained by inconsistent response rates[3]
  • Simple yes/no responses that provide little context and nuance
  • Varying data quality due to differing state practices in collection and reporting of data
  • Considerable missing data, even for young people who respond to the survey

Missing data indicates that some young people skip questions, do not complete the survey, or do not participate in subsequent waves (ages 19 and 21). Missing data and low response rates mean that NYTD is not representative of all young people transitioning out of foster care in the United States. To compound this issue, differences in data collection create nuances in the data that are important to consider when examining findings at the national level. Additionally, states can adjust the order and the explanation(s) of the questions, which may impact how young people interpret and answer them. The lack of nuance available through yes/no responses to questions about homelessness, for example, obscures details on the length of the homeless spell or the number of homeless spells—information that is important to designing interventions to address young people’s housing needs.

Many of the limitations stated above will require additional guidance and support to states. With time, some of the NYTD limitations may lessen as more data are collected. With only two full cohorts of data available, states are still learning how to collect and report the data while creating systems to do so efficiently. There was an increase in response rates from the first to the second cohort, and we expect to continue seeing improvements in the data over time.

Forthcoming series of briefs

In upcoming briefs, we will present findings from our analyses of NYTD data that complement the findings presented in the first NYTD Report to Congress. This series will examine a variety of topics on the well-being of young people, including housing, education, and employment. We will also identify areas for NYTD quality improvement and provide new information that highlights the unique experiences of young people leaving foster care.


[1] States with Title IV-E extended foster care can provide services to young people ages 21 to 23.

[2] States have the option to sample a subset of young people who completed the baseline survey for waves 2 and 3 of data collection.

[3] Response rates for cohort 2 range from 31% to 100% at age 17, and the gap widens at ages 19 and 21.