What steps need to be taken to prepare youth to be as successful as possible in adulthood?

The status of older youth who are leaving their state’s substitute care system has recently been the subject of much public scrutiny nationwide. Foster care youth are at risk for homelessness, welfare dependency, and incarceration following their emancipation. Most would agree that the obstacles faced by all adolescents on the road to self-sufficiency are compounded when youth grow up in the foster care system, often without the usual supports found in intact families. Numerous studies have been published in recent years which examine the link between substitute care placement and adult success. These studies have led to a widespread outcry for reform.

This has been a challenging issue for DCFS. The disadvantages experienced by the vast majority of our children prior to their entry into care are profound. Any instability in the foster home or school after entry only compounds problems. For child welfare staff, this means that the early experiences of these children and their relationships with our caregivers while in care are critical. Too often, work with teenage clients starts too late to make a difference in post-discharge outcomes. Thoughtful planning for the future is replaced by crisis intervention.

In addition, the Department faces a very unique challenge in its efforts to developing effective policies and programs for youth – at times, even the best intentions of the state can be thwarted by the mere developmental occurrence of adolescence. Most parents of teenagers will agree that these years can be very difficult as youth express their individualism and desire for autonomy. It is especially difficult for youth in the foster care system who often express that their lives are completely controlled by external forces such as the court and DCFS. Regardless of how strong the Department’s desire is for a youth to complete their education and begin planning for their future, youth have the legal right to make many of their own choices, including whether to finish high school and where they will live after they turn eighteen. Such dynamics not only pose challenges to the caseworkers and caregivers who work with the youth but also pose a challenge to the system of care in its entirety.


Illinois began examining the effectiveness of its adolescent programming in late 1997. Approximately 2,000 youth in Illinois spend their 17th birthday in the foster care system. For about 10% of these youth, foster care is the only home they have known, 40% came into state custody while in grade school, and the remaining 50% entered as teens. Most of these 17-year-olds will remain in state custody for at least another year after reaching majority age. Two-thirds will stay for at least another year after turning 19 years old.

What happens to these youth as they age out of the foster care system is of growing concern, particularly to the authorities who are responsible for their care and custody. As Illinois began looking closely at its programming, it became apparent that changes were needed. However, it also became evident that we knew very little about these older youth as a population.

As a result, Director Jess McDonald asked the DCFS Research Director to conduct a survey on the status of youth in care aged 17 years and older. The survey, which solicited information from child welfare caseworkers, focused on a random sample of 414 older youth in state custody. 71% of caseworkers who were asked to complete the survey responded.

Highlights of the Older Youth Survey are as follows:

  • 21% of older wards included in the Survey were full-time or working students who are pursuing post-secondary education. Caseworkers expected that 81% of these youth will be very successful and none are predicted to face particularly severe hardships at living independently.
  • Another 41% of the older wards were either working or attending high school. They exhibited no special medical, developmental, or mental health needs that could impair their future functioning. Caseworkers expected that about 38% of these youth will be very successful and about 58% will be somewhat successful.

These results indicate that most older wards are currently functioning well, with promising prospects of a smooth transition to adulthood. Nonetheless, a significant number of older wards face serious obstacles in achieving future independence.

  • 6% of all older wards targeted by the Survey were seriously impaired by two or more medical, developmental, or behavioral needs that interfere with their attaining independence. Caseworkers predicted that approximately 90% of these wards will have serious difficulties with self-sufficiency and will probably need future state supports.
  • 21% of the older youth had a medical, developmental, or behavioral need or a serious alcohol or drug problem that puts them at moderate to high risk of future difficulties. Caseworkers believed that 45% of these youth will probably need future state supports and 45% will have occasional difficulties with self-sufficiency, such as sporadic unemployment.
  • 11% were idle, neither working nor attending high school. The lack of both a job and a high school diploma puts them at grave risk of long-term joblessness, poverty, and possibly homelessness. Caseworkers anticipated that about half of these youth may need ongoing financial assistance while about 40% may be able to maintain minimal self-sufficiency on irregular earnings and occasional support from friends and family.

Generally, caseworkers gave the youth a "fair" to "excellent" chance at making a successful transition to adulthood. Given the disadvantages of a disrupted family life and subsequent foster care placement, this positive perception is encouraging. However, there is a need for follow-up study. A three-part study conducted in Wisconsin reported youth as having positive expectations for the future while still in care but twelve to eighteen months after leaving care, most had not fared as well as predicted.

The Department has not been alone in its search for better outcomes for adolescents. At the federal level, there is much discussion regarding possible expansion of funding for independent living services. Current independent living funding is limited and IV-E funds cannot be used for actual services to children and youth, posing obvious financial challenges for states.

Despite the many challenges, the Department is committed to being a leader in the development of services and programming for adolescents in care. To accomplish our goals, we will start early, emphasize educational success, plan for the needs of special populations, and collaborate with our youth and community partners to find realistic solutions to troubling problems.


Current Efforts:

Transition planning which begins at age 16 is too late. The Department now requires formal assessment and planning with a concentrated focus on the youth’s interests, abilities, and personal goals to begin upon the youth’s fourteenth birthday. The Department’s focus is on reintegrating service delivery – maintaining one comprehensive plan and involving caregivers, schools, and social service partners into the planning process.

Expectations for transition planning have been raised. All agencies which provide substitute care placements for youth are now contractually required to provide services directed toward preparing and moving youth to self-sufficiency. The organizational embodiment of this heightened Department focus is the newly established Division of Education and Transition Services bringing together educational services and programs for older wards into a high profile administrative unit.

On January 1, 1999, the Department began implementing revised transition planning requirements for youth in care. The new policy represents a significant shift in practice from fragmented adolescent programs to comprehensive planning. These policy changes reflect several basic assumptions regarding adolescent wards:

  • All youth in placement, regardless of permanency goal must be provided with supports necessary to enhance their self-sufficiency.
  • Each child and family are different. There is no one set of criteria to determine whether a child is ready for independent living which would fit all families and all children.
  • All parents, including the State, must accept that a teenager is allowed certain rights within the law to make decisions for himself or herself. Among those decisions is whether to continue in school past the age of sixteen and whether to continue living at home after age eighteen.
  • Preparing teenagers for adulthood begins early in a child’s life. A child learns how to do things such as cooking, housekeeping, grocery shopping, etc. by being part of a household in which those things are done. The child learns by example and by doing these things in a situation in which he or she has some of the responsibility but not all of the responsibility.

With these principles in mind, the Department has taken decisive action to ensure that the young people in its care are adequately prepared for independence.

  • A standard Life Skills Assessment is required for all youth in DCFS care at age 14, 16, and 6 months prior to discharge. DCFS has selected a standard assessment to use for this purpose to provide a consistent tool with which to track the youth’s progress. This assessment identifies skill areas which may require additional attention and training.
  • Special assessment tools are available for use with youth who are pregnant and parenting or possess a developmental disability.
  • Transition Goals must be included in a youth’s service plan with progress evaluated every 6 months through Administrative Case Reviews. These goals are to be consistent with the youth’s interests, abilities, and identified needs. During the fall of 1998, DCFS and private agency caseworkers, supervisors, and other select staff were trained to use the life skills assessment tool and provided with a practice manual which contains suggestions for real-life activities which can help youth learn needed skills.
  • The caseworker, caregiver, and youth work together to identify teachable moments within the substitute care environment which will allow youth to gain valuable Life Skills. Life skill classes continue to be available as necessary to support learning.
  • Community Supports must be established early instead of contractual specialty services which are discontinued when youth is emancipated.
  • Volunteer or Vocational Experience must be arranged for youth every year upon entering high school. Partnerships with other state agencies, including the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs and the Department of Employment Security, provide year-round and summer employment opportunities.
  • Supervised Independent Living Programs, offered through DCFS and private agencies, provide financial assistance and supports to help youth make a smooth transition to self-sufficiency.
  • The DCFS Youth in Transition Program provides financial assistance for older youth who are participating full time in employment, vocational training, and/or education.
  • Expansion of the DCFS Scholarship will ease the financial burden of college for more youth. This year, the Scholarship was increased from twenty-four recipients to forty-eight and expanded to include former wards who have been adopted or are living in subsidized guardianship arrangements.
  • Youth Empowerment Programs continue to be provided.

Addressing the Needs of Special Populations

The special needs of certain adolescents under DCFS care continue to present challenges to child welfare and other social service systems. DCFS’ aggressive adoption and guardianship efforts establish lifelong support systems for children with diverse special needs. Such familial supports increase the likelihood that youth will experience success.

Recent efforts have allowed the Department to better meet the needs of two specific populations of children and youth under its care -- those who are pregnant and/or parenting and those with developmental disabilities. The Department must continue to partner with other state agencies to seek beneficial policies which will enable youth who are mentally ill, possess medical or physical disabilities, are sexually aggressive, or possess other disabilities to achieve maximum self-sufficiency.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth:

Providing all of the necessary services to children in state custody is a monumental task for any child welfare agency. That task is largely compounded, however, when the children being served are not just children but also parents themselves. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has recognized the need to serve its pregnant and parenting adolescents in a specialized manner, addressing their needs as children who have been removed from their parents while acknowledging and facilitating their role as parent.

DCFS has contracted with Uhlich Children’s Home, a private child welfare agency, to create the Teen Parenting Service Network (TPSN). This network functions as a comprehensive service delivery system specifically for DCFS pregnant and parenting teens in Cook County and the surrounding collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will. Uhlich and its five Regional Service Partner Agencies serve this six county area, providing casework services to approximately 1,300 pregnant and parenting clients, male and female, in all placement types.

The TPSN system was developed through an intensive planning process with many of the Department’s most staunch critics actively involved. The system was designed to deliver services which address youths’ physical and emotional needs, provides resources which help them achieve self-sufficiency, and develops skills which are essential to becoming competent parents to their children. Throughout the planning process, the Department’s goals of safety, permanency, and well-being for all of its children and youth were of utmost importance.

Two main aspects of the TPSN program differentiate it from mainstream casework: specialized caseworkers and low client/caseworker ratios. All TPSN caseworkers must have several years of child welfare casework experience and a desire to work with this unique population. Their core training consists of information that is specific to pregnant/parenting clients, covering everything from family planning options and child development to how to effectively listen to the teen client and the psychology of being a teen parent. In addition TPSN caseworkers carry caseloads of only ten clients which provides them with the ability to focus on the specific needs of each client.

Perhaps the most vital component of TPSN is the emphasis placed on transition planning for these young parents. When the time comes for these clients to be emancipated from DCFS, they not only have to be self-sufficient, but also prepared to be good parents to their children. Under the TPSN program, transition planning begins when the client enters the program and continues until the day he/she is emancipated. Formal staffings occur every 3 months after the youth reaches the age of seventeen to review the youth’s transition plan.

TPSN caseworkers routinely provide their clients with services they require to become independent, including obtaining an education and/or job training, learning how to budget money, and receiving counseling for issues that may impact the client for the rest of his or her life. Additionally, youth receive assistance in becoming a good parent by accessing parenting skills classes, nutrition and medical information and even recreational services. It is the intent of the Teen Parenting Service Network to provide its clients and their children with the resources they need to become healthy, happy and functioning families that will not require additional state intervention in the future.

Youth with Developmental Disabilities

A number of children and youth in DCFS care have been diagnosed with one or more disabilities which can impact their ability to transition to self-sufficiency. The recent DCFS Older Youth Survey found that 6% of the older youth were seriously impaired by two or more medical, developmental, or behavioral needs. Caseworkers predicted that 90% of these youth would have serious difficulties with self-sufficiency and would likely need future state supports.

Historically, effective transition of youth with a developmental disability has been problematic due to the lack of a formal interagency planning strategy and limited availability of services. While youth in the child welfare system are entitled to certain services, such an entitlement does not exist for adult disability services. To address the needs of developmentally disabled wards who require continued supports, legislation was passed in the Spring of 1998 which required development of an interagency agreement outlining the transition process. While legislation only requires inclusion of DCFS and the Illinois Department of Human Services, the state agencies believed it was important to develop a comprehensive agreement, including not only the issue of adult placements and services but also the adult guardianship. As a result, the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission was asked to join with DCFS and DHS in the development of the agreement.

After months of planning and discussion, an agreement was executed. Today, interagency planning for adult care begins at age 17 , funding responsibility is clearly defined, and a process for conflict resolution has been established. This earlier start provides a better opportunity to adequately assess service needs, locate an appropriate supportive living arrangement, and resolve guardianship issues prior to a youth’s 21st birthday.

Future Steps

The Department has made much progress in identifying and addressing the needs of DCFS wards, but much work remains. Our strategy is clear. Early investment of resources will improve future outcomes. From early childhood through the high school years, the attention of caseworkers and caregivers to the child’s needs and progress, especially related to education, is critical. Planning which begins at age 16 is too late. By this time, many youth have already begun down a path leading to loss of self-esteem, school failure, and hopelessness. The Department’s development of formal assessment and planning protocols is a monumental step in the right direction.

Future work will focus on building collaborations with key stakeholders, ongoing assessment of programs and protocols, establishing post-discharge supports, and building special initiatives to re-engage youth with education and employment.

  • Promoting Dialogue & Collaboration with Key Stakeholders:

Among the most important stakeholders in discussions related to transition from foster care to adulthood are the youth themselves. The Department plans to engage in ongoing planning with the DCFS Statewide Youth Advisory Board (SYAB). In addition, Regional Youth Advisory Councils and a toll-free youth hotline which youth can contact with questions, concerns, and comments about Department services are under development. This expansion will provide additional opportunities for youth to comment on the policies and protocols which impact their lives.

On May 25, 1999, the Department, in cooperation with the Child Protection Division of the Cook County Juvenile Court and the Jane Adams College of Social Work, will sponsor a forum focusing on focus on the status and needs of older youth in care. The day-long forum will bring together national experts for discussion on state programs and future directions. Panel discussion and opportunities for information-sharing with Illinois teenagers is also planned.

  • Ongoing Assessment of Programs & Protocols:

The Department anticipates that ongoing evaluation of its independent living programming and transition protocols will be necessary to ensure efficacy of services. As previously indicated, progress of transition planning for individual youth will be monitored through the semi-annual administrative case review process. However, broader inspection of both DCFS and purchase of care programming is warranted. Programs and policies that are determined to be ineffective will be retooled to reflect best practice models.

  • Establishing Post-Discharge Supports:

The Department continues to explore and build models of support and services for youth who have left the foster care system. Illinois law requires that DCFS guardianship be terminated when a youth reaches the age of nineteen unless he or she has needs which warrant longer services. This requirement lends additional credence to the Department’s early start philosophy. Preparation for self-sufficiency must begin as soon as he or she enters care.

The Department is currently preparing written guidance for staff to assist them in assessing whether children are prepared for guardianship discharge or whether an extension would be appropriate.

For those youth who are discharged from care but experience unanticipated problems, post-discharge services are under development. Assistance in locating housing, financial aid, and linkages to community-based social services would be provided for former wards up to the age of 21. Requests for assistance will be received through the planned toll-free youth hotline.

  • Building Special Initiatives

The Department continues to seek opportunities to implement state-of-the-art programming for children and adolescents in care, especially programs which re-engage children and youth with schools or employment.

The Department recognizes the importance of effective planning and supports for the adolescent youth in its care. Youth who have a vision for their future are most likely to achieve. For this reason, caseworkers and caregivers are being trained now to recognize the developmental characteristics of adolescents and to engage them in planning for their future. Much progress has been made over the course of the past year, but progress must continue. The forum, continued dialogue on model programs and strategies, and improved broad-based planning with youth, advocates, and service providers will help Illinois better prepare youth to transition from foster care to a better future.


The Department’s recent efforts have been focused on defining policy and training staff to do quality work with adolescents. Long term goals are in the process of being clearly defined. However, we generally have the following expectations:

  • Increase the number of youth who have a transition plan in place at the age of fourteen;
  • Increase the number of youth who possess a high school diploma when discharged from care;
  • Increase the number of youth who have work experience when discharged from care.