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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney

Four Policy Challenges

A review of current public policies directed toward vulnerable youth in transition reveals problems in four areas.48 First, eligibility criteria exclude youth from services that might benefit them; second, funding for transition services is inadequate; third, lack of coordination across service systems hampers appropriate service delivery; and, finally, many service professionals lack training in developmental issues for young adults.

Eligibility criteria often prevent needy youth from using the services that are available. For instance, before recent changes in federal policy, transition services that were available to youth in foster care were quite limited for those who left care before aging out.49 A youth who spends several years in foster care before being adopted at age fourteen may well benefit from transition services as much as a youth who ages out. Such inconsistency works against other goals of the child welfare system—in this case, although adoption is encouraged by public policy, it penalizes youths in terms of their long-term prospects. Similarly the juvenile justice system offers after-care and support only to youth placed in residential settings, not to those on parole.50 Placement on parole may reflect a range of policies determined by the attitudes of judges or the local community, attitudes that may have little to do with a youth's need for assistance in making the transition to adulthood.

Overall service delivery is hampered by limited funding in relation to the actual need.51 For example, although the federal government gives states $140 million a year to help prepare foster youth for the transition to adulthood, that total translates into very little per youth. Even if the states allocated all of that funding to services for the approximately 25,000 youth who exit foster care each year to legal emancipation, the share going to each former foster youth between eighteen and twenty-one would be less than $2,000. Because there are no age restrictions on the use of these funds and because states often target youth sixteen and older, the actual amount spent per youth is undoubtedly even less.

A third policy challenge is that the service systems operate independently and almost in isolation from each other. They rarely even communicate except regarding specific youth, and sometimes not even then. The lack of communication reflects narrow federal eligibility criteria that also make it hard for local government and private-sector service providers to aggregate funding across sources, leading to gaps in, and duplication of, services. For instance, in many communities youth in the juvenile justice system have no way to obtain mental health services. Service delivery is also hampered because the child- and adult-serving systems operate independently of each other. Youth entering adulthood encounter entirely new systems, such as vocational rehabilitation, and typically there is little communication even between child and adult arms of the same systems.

The attitudes and training of service providers pose the final policy challenge. Even if the relevant agencies and departments were to work well together in a given community, young adults might still have trouble finding providers who are aware of their age-specific needs, much less trained to address them. Research has demonstrated, for example, that medical providers are ill-prepared (or even unwilling) to discuss issues of sexuality with adolescents with disabilities.52 Another developmental issue facing medical personnel for patients of this age is the youths' increased rights to privacy on reaching the age of majority. The law provides young adults with important privacy rights, though their families usually remain important in their lives, and medical professionals typically do not know how to explore ways that families might provide support.