Aged Out How We’re Failing Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care


Think of Us has been focused since its founding on improving the life outcomes of transition-age youth and youth who age out of foster care. In 2019, Think of Us formed a research team to investigate: Why do poor outcomes for youth who age out of care persist? What are the current lived experiences of youth who age out of care? In what ways does child welfare continue to fall short for youth who age out of care?

This study is designed to understand the experiences of transition-age youth in their transition out of foster care

Between fall 2019 and spring 2020, Think of Us partnered with Bloom Works (Bloom) to conduct a participatory research study to answer these questions. Together, Think of Us and Bloom worked with five child welfare locations across the United States to better understand youth’s experiences aging out of foster care, the transition process, and how the system is falling woefully short for these youth. The research team traveled to each of the five participating locations and conducted infield research sprints using participatory research methodologies. Think of Us partnered with sites who opened their doors, their hearts, and their minds to this project in their commitment to improving the life outcomes for foster youth. These partner sites were: Santa Clara County in California, First Place for Youth in Solano and San Francisco Counties in California, The New York Foundling in New York City, Hennepin County in Minnesota, and Uplift Family Services in San José, California. During these sprints, the research team engaged a wide range of foster youth, former foster youth, child welfare staff and leadership, supportive adults, foster parents, and more, speaking with a total of 206 people in 92 research sessions. The team conducted research using a combination of in-depth interviews, ad hoc discussions, observations, and participatory design workshops. Throughout the study, our inquiry used a broad lens, taking an interest in any topic that might elucidate the experiences of young people aging out of care and centering their experiences, hopes, and fears as youth grapple with the free fall that is exiting the state’s custody.

The transition out of foster care begins years before foster youth officially age out

The system is mandated to provide “permanency” to foster youth. This happens through adoption–wherein they become legal members of another family, reunification–wherein they return home to their families, or another permanent family relationship. Should permanency seem unlikely, the system asks youth as early as the age of 14 to engage (with varying degrees of agency) in a process to plan for aging out. Hasan, Christian, Verónica, Alex, and Latoya are examples of what the system calls transitionage youth: youth who are of the age to plan for and experience that aging out transition. Through these five archetypes, we hope to represent the breadth and depth of experiences that aging out youth face, based on their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, parental status, length in care, placement, geographic location, educational attainment, interaction with the juvenile justice system, and other factors that highly affect how youth experience foster care and the aging out transition.

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