The National Youth in Transition Database Turns 10
We tend to think of legislation arising from rich data, influential advocates and persuasive policy arguments. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In 1985, Reggie Brown, Harold Fredericks and Joseph Morgan – three young people were discharged from foster care at age 18 and allowed the New York Times to document struggles in living on their own. Their stories, along with advocates and researchers, helped persuade Congress to pass the first federal independent living initiative in 1986.
Since that time, we have added a federal funding stream for services designed to assist youth in transitioning from foster care to adulthood. The passage of the Foster Care Independence Act in 1999 established the landmark John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition (formerly called the “John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program) and required for the first time a national data collection capturing the experiences and outcomes of youth served by the program.
After years of consultation with the child welfare field, pilot-testing and federal rule-making that system, now known as the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD), was launched finally in 2010.
This new federal reporting system required that states collect outcomes information directly from cohorts of youth through a short survey at ages 17, 19, 21. Its inception marked the first time in history that client voices were included in a national reporting system designed to be used for program monitoring. Joining the two other federal systems tracking data on child maltreatment – the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System – NYTD represented a final data point to help understand the trajectory of youth into, through and even beyond the child welfare system.
A decade ago, we both were present at the table and recognized the unique opportunity to design a system from scratch, in partnership with young people, that could reshape the ecosystem of administrative data collection in child welfare. At the time, some advocates and researchers expressed alarm that the database would do little to add to the knowledge base in child welfare and that methodological concerns and poor data quality would plague efforts to make use of the data. Notably, at the first national meeting announcing the pending launch of NYTD in 2008, some states suggested it was not worth the cost of implementing and that it would be cheaper to pay a federal penalty than to invest resources in implementing data collection at the state level.
At that meeting in 2008, college interns, with lived expertise from foster care, elevated the urgent need for partnering with young people early on in the formation of the database, which inspired the upswell of youth participating from each state, in the following national NYTD conferences. Young people continue to pave the partnership path between the child welfare field and young people by being trained partners at the table, by sharing about the database to other young people at state conferences, within workgroups, and in their everyday interactions with other young people.
On the 10-year anniversary of NYTD’s launch, we both found much to celebrate.
First, we have new information about the transition experience and new insights into the role services play in improving that experience. From cohort to cohort, surveyed youth are showing encouraging signs of success. By age 21, a majority of young adults have earned a high school diploma or GED, report a positive connection to an adult, and have medical insurance. But young people also face challenges, as survey data show that 40% of young people reported at least one experience with homelessness by age 21.
We also learned that how we care for youth in the system may make an impact. Youth who were in a foster family home at age 17 were more likely to later report better outcomes in education and employment and report fewer experiences with homelessness and incarceration than did youth in group homes. Similarly, youth with fewer placement changes also fared better in these areas than youth with many placement changes.
But, we feel that National Youth in Transition Database figures are used best closest to their source: in the individual state systems implementing their own unique programs for young people. We have been encouraged to see examples of states using the database on youth services and characteristics to understand how, how much and where youth are getting services. Gathering additional information about youth such as a juvenile justice history, tribal membership or participation in special education further helps paint a picture of the population of youth and helps states be accountable to equitably meeting the needs of all youth.
What is more, the act of implementing data collection required states to do the important work of carefully considering what constitutes its “program” for youth and who is considered a “provider” of independent living services. The responsibility for equipping youth with the skills and relationships they need in adulthood is shared by many individuals, and not simply those adult professionals paid to be in their lives. Foster parents, mentors, and other caring adults may all be important sources of support to youth learning, testing and striving to enter adulthood ready to succeed.
Because NYTD included a requirement for states to conduct a survey of the same group of youth as they age, states have had to devise creative strategies for engaging and locating youth both in and out of foster care. For many states, successfully designing a survey process has required partnering with young people to design youth-friendly survey instruments and outreach strategies. Other states have made use of the required survey to pose other questions to young people to advance their understanding of the transition experience.
The survey also can be an opportunity to reconnect young people to supportive systems they may have lost touch with after exiting foster care. In Arizona, for example, each surveyed youth is offered an opportunity to discuss their needs with a trained survey administrator who can – with the consent of the young person – share these needs with a caseworker at the child welfare agency or facilitate a warm handoff to a Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funded provider.
Young people are not simply providers of information. They should be active participants in helping determine how to collect, analyze and use data to improve programs. We both were part of the early federal effort to pilot a program to do precisely that for NYTD. As federal staff began conducting site visits and reviews of state NYTD implementation efforts, trained and paid young adults with foster experience were invited to join these teams and recommend strategies for improving data collection and use.In this way, the federal government is helping drive continuous quality improvement informed directly by individuals who are part of that system, while empowering youth to be decision-makers – a critical skill they need to live as successful adults.
To be sure, challenges remain in improving data quality and boosting youth participation in the NYTD survey nationally. But data and evidence are rarely sufficient to influence change. You also need the voices of those with lived experiences to punctuate data and inspire those in a position to put data into action.
That was true in 1985 when Reggie Brown, Harold Fredericks, and Joseph Morgan told their story and it remains true today. The difference is that now, thanks to NYTD, we have a new national source of information about youth, from youth. That’s a story worth telling.