Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Youth with Disabilities Aging Out of Foster Care: Issues and Support Strategies


Katharine Hill is Education Specialist with the North Central Regional Resource Center, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Pam Stenhjem

The transition from high school to adult life can be exciting, but also challenging and even frightening. Young people are expected to live independently, continue their education, pursue careers, establish relationships, and participate in their communities. Meeting these goals is only part of the picture for youth with disabilities; additional social, academic, health, and environmental barriers must also be addressed (Lehman, Hewitt, Bullis, Rinkin & Castellanos, 2002; Cameto, 2005). Add foster care to this mix of challenges for youth with disabilities and successful outcomes can be significantly jeopardized. Youth aging out of foster care must first address basic, critical needs such as housing or medical care that youth in stable situations do not face (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan & Ruth, 2004). Foster youth experience many disruptions growing up and often require extensive supports in transition to adulthood (Massinga & Pecora, 2004). This article addresses the unique needs of foster youth with disabilities and best practices in the transition planning process.

Impact of Legislation

Federal legislative mandates protecting youth with disabilities as well as those in foster care are very compatible and reflect the same basic needs and goals for youth. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures youth with disabilities receive individualized supports and services to successfully complete high school and transition to postsecondary education, employment, and adult life. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) plan ensures formation of concrete goals with measurable outcomes based on each individual’s future plans (NCSET, 2002). IDEA’s definition of transition planning implies a comprehensive process addressing all life domains, including a “coordinated set of activities” planned and implemented by a transition team of education and service representatives, the parent/caregiver, and ideally the youth themselves (Lehman, et al., 2002; Cameto, 2005).

The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program of 1999 doubles the amount of money available to states for independent living services, provides increased flexibility for development and implementation of Independent Living Programs (GAO, 2004), and supports outreach programs, education and employment assistance, daily living skills training, individual/group counseling, and service coordination. A required, transitional independent living plan supports youth to: develop critical competencies; obtain education, career counseling, physical/mental health care, and housing; develop relationships with caring adults; access community resources, public benefits, and services; and acquire daily living skills (Pokempner & Rosado, 2003). Up to 30% of program funds can pay for room and board. Education and Training Vouchers up to $5000 per year are also available. States must coordinate Chafee programs with runaway, homeless youth, and housing programs; work-force agencies; disability services; and tribal entities (GAO, 2004). 

IDEA and Chafee requirements are complimentary and have the potential to strengthen one another when combined. Best practice would dictate that these federal requirements and planning processes be coordinated when planning for the transition of foster youth with disabilities.

Youth with Disabilities in Foster Care

The prevalence of youth with disabilities in long-term foster care mandates specific attention and action. Although Chapin Hall’s 2005 longitudinal Midwest Study of youth aging out of foster care excludes youth with developmental disabilities or severe mental health problems, nearly half the youth report receiving special education services (Courtney, 2005; Courtney, Terao, & Bost, 2004). Ironically, disabilities are rarely studied in relation to child welfare and are even less frequently considered in the transition from care (Geenen & Powers, 2006).

The National Evaluation of Title IV-E Independent Living Programs found foster youth with disabilities are less likely to be employed, graduate from high school, have social support, or be self-sufficient compared to non-disabled peers (Westat, 1991). In general, they have poor school performance, lag behind in academic achievement, and experience significant challenges to academic success (Geenen & Powers, in press). Although many foster youth have disabilities and should receive special education services, multiple moves, school changes, and inconsistent adult advocacy for comprehensive and appropriate IEPs means this is often not the case (Badeau, 2000).

A comparison of the IEP/ITPs (Individualized Transition Plans) of 45 foster special education students with the IEPs of 45 special education students not in care (Geenen & Powers, in press) indicates the foster youth were significantly less likely to have independent living and postsecondary education goals. Foster youth and educational advocates rarely attended IEP meetings and low wage jobs with little opportunity for advancement were the norm. In addition, IEPs indicated very few extracurricular activities and lack of self-determination training, person-centered and career planning, and mentoring activities. None of the IEP plans made any reference to the transition planning process occurring in the child welfare system.

Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

Aging out of foster care is challenging for a variety of reasons, including lack of family/caregiver support, confusion about services, and lack of thorough, realistic planning. Child welfare typically focuses on temporary child removal as well as reducing time spent in foster care. Nevertheless, numerous children spend considerable time in foster care, many remaining until emancipation with approximately 20,000 adolescents leaving foster care each year (GAO, 1999).

Foster youth in the Midwest Study faced a broad spectrum of challenges when aging out (Courtney et al., 2005). Almost 63% were not enrolled in an education or training program and only 11% were enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college. Fewer than half were employed, and for those who were, employment was sporadic, rarely providing financial security. Less than half received independent living services and only 50% received education services. Twenty-five percent did not have enough to eat and one in seven had been homeless. Nearly half of the females were pregnant by age 19 and were more than twice as likely to have at least one child. Thirty-three percent had been arrested in the last year and 23.7% spent at least one night in a correctional facility (Courtney et al., 2005).

Foster and Gifford (2004) found approximately one-third of youth leaving foster care were receiving public cash assistance within two years. Other studies indicate youth who leave care are more likely to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse (Massinga & Percora, 2004) and to be suspended from school or expelled (Courtney, Terao, & Bost, 2004). Thirty to forty percent of foster youth have chronic medical problems (GAO, 2004) and twice as many have repeated a grade, changed schools, or enrolled in special education as compared to their peers.

Supporting Youth with Disabilities

As foster youth with disabilities age out of the child welfare system, coordination of transition planning among key agencies and systems is imperative. Frey, Greenblatt & Brown (2005) states:

“Aging out” without a permanent family and/or adequate preparation for adulthood is a crisis. It is a personal injury to each and every youth in care and a public emergency for our national child welfare system. (p. 1)

Transition planning has evolved from a systems-driven approach to the current best practice of youth-driven, strengths-based transition planning (Lehman, et al., 2002; NCSET, 2004). The Child Welfare League of America’s (CWLA; 2005) recently-released transition standards compliment requirements within IDEA: youth involvement, healthy and safe environments, healthy relationships, learning by doing, creating community partnerships, interdependence, and feedback and self-assessment. In addition, the National Resource Center for Youth Development has identified four core principles for successful transition from foster care (Kessler, 2004) that also align with and enhance IDEA and CWLA standards: 1) positive youth development promoting self-determination, communication, and problem-solving skills; 2) collaboration that includes functional linkages among child welfare systems, schools, medical/mental health services, foster care providers, and other human service and community agencies; 3) cultural competence that extends beyond race and ethnicity to disability, sexual orientation, religion, and gender and reflects diverse backgrounds, strengths, unique cultural issues, and traditions of youth and their families; and 4) family and community connections that are maintained and strengthened through participation in the transition planning process.

Foster youth with disabilities aging out of care require careful, coordinated planning that aligns the IEP with the National Resource Center for Youth Development’s four core principles and CWLA Standards of Excellence. Youth must learn self-determination skills through formal goals on their plan and be actively engaged as leaders in the planning process (Wehmeyer, Palmer, Agran, Mithaug, & Martin, 2000). Consistency in planning, especially for those that transfer between numerous foster placements, must be addressed.

Additional recommendations to improve the transition of foster youth with disabilities include:

  • Concrete, Integrated Transition Plans.Transition plans must contain specific goals, action steps, and clear responsibility designation to ensure success. Service needs and agencies must be integrated and build upon supports and services available, including education/training vouchers, independent living programs, SSI, Medicaid, and other health services (Geenen & Powers, in press). At a minimum, transition plans must include employment, education, housing, life skills, personal and community engagement, personal and cultural identity, physical and mental health, and legal information (Sheehy, Ansell, Correia & Copeland, 2000).
  • Appointment and Training of Educational Surrogates. Although foster parents often act as an educational surrogate, many do not have training in special education and disability issues. Disruptions in foster placement create disruptions in the educational process and leave youth without a consistent, informed, and involved advocate (Geenen & Powers, 2006). A more consistent approach that includes stable, committed adults to ensure youth receive the coordinated, comprehensive services they are entitled to, is imperative.
  • Connections with Caring Adults. The consistent presence of a single caring adult has been shown to have a significant positive impact on a young person’s growth and development (Garmezy, 1993). Optimal independent living planning should be family-centered and include existing relationships both inside and outside the family of origin. In many cases, youth are the best resource for identifying relationships that can serve as primary, ongoing connections (Sheehy et al., 2000).


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