$200 Million Venture to Help Youth Aging Out of Foster Care Hits New York, Pittsburgh

Tiney Pugh (left), a participant in a transition-age foster youth program modeled after one created by Youth Villages, says his counselor Frank Tennant, Jr. (right) helped him turn his life around

The Tennessee-based Youth Villages, one of the largest nonprofits in the country, has awarded New York City and Pittsburgh major funding to implement a promising support program for young adults who have recently left foster care.

“We are proud that New Yorkers For Children, in partnership with ACS, has been selected as a partner for the YVLifeSet program,” said Commissioner David Hansell of New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration of Children’s Services, in a statement. “This program delivers an intensive model to help young people with their education, employment, housing and health care, and to establish a support network.”

The two-city expansion is part of Youth Villages’ ambitious, amply funded plan to provide YVLifeSet (or comparable support) to every youth aging out of foster care nationwide. Pittsburgh and New York will receive roughly $2.6 million combined over the next three years to provide intensive guidance to 17- to 22-year-olds on housing, education, employment, health and relationships. Both cities have also raised matching funds from public and private sources locally, according to Youth Villages spokeswoman Connie Mills. Altogether, New York will have $3.2 million for the first three years, while Allegheny County will have $2 million.

aging out

YVLifeSet, which seeks to empower youth who are aging out of foster care, is now active in 10 states.

Child welfare experts agree that former foster youth experience especially high rates of unemployment, incarceration and homelessness. Yet, even though the modern foster care system is nearly a century old, only in recent decades have states and the federal government devoted serious resources and attention to this population’s fate.

Youth Villages’ program — which the 3,000-employee, 58-location organization currently administers in seven states — is one of the largest helping so-called transition-age young people nationwide, reaching nearly 12,000 since the program began in 1999. This latest expansion of the program is backed by a commitment of up to $200 million over 11 years from Blue Meridian Partners, a group of large foundations convened by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Two years ago, the group announced several big bets on expanding youth-serving programs.

YVLifeSet is what’s known as an independent living program. It aims to help smooth the transition to independence for young people who grew up in foster care by providing focused, intensive support and counseling.

Caseworkers spend about one hour per week with each youth. That time might be spent on money management and job-seeking skills, substance abuse recovery, or help with setting up a bank account, or registering for community college. Youth coping with traumatic experience might be paired with a specialist who provides cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a flexible, customizable service that can last up to nine months, depending on each youth’s needs, though Lawler says some will re-engage with caseworkers months longer if necessary.

An evaluation of YVLifeSet by the private policy research firm MDRC tracked 1,300 former foster youth in Tennessee — some men and women assigned to the program, and some not — for two years after they joined, each joining sometime between 2010 and 2012.

The program “boosted earnings, increased housing stability and economic well-being, and improved some outcomes related to health and safety,” according to the study. It did not improve outcomes when it came to education, or criminal involvement, though.

Youth Villages has touted the results, which were published in 2016. There hasn’t been any follow-up with those study subjects since the study period ended in 2012, so it’s still unclear how participants do in the long run. Youth Villages declined to reveal any future plans for more rigorous evaluation of the program.

Tiney Pugh, a 21-year-old Philadelphian and former foster youth, landscaper, and aspiring chef and restauranteur, signed up for YVLifeSet last year, when he was 20.

“It’s made a big difference,” said Pugh. “My life was a whole disaster; I got in fights in my foster home. Now I’m on my own, still going through things, but I wake up every day motivated.”

He says his YVLifeSet specialist, Frank Tennant, Jr., helped him learn how to manage his feelings and walk away from unnecessary confrontations. Tennant also helped Pugh arrange doctor and dentist appointments and pursue job opportunities.

“Mr. Frank is the best worker I’ve ever had in my life,” Pugh said. “All the others gave up on me. I had a temper, but it’s better now.”

Recognizing the challenges this population faces — and that young adults out of foster care often benefit from substantial support from their parents well into their twenties — states have taken advantage of new federal funding allowances to allow foster youth to stay in care longer if they choose. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act allowed states to split the cost of foster care with the federal government, until a foster youth reaches age 21; so far, 25 states have opted in to raise the age ceiling on foster care.

“There hasn’t been the financial resources devoted to this group of young people,” said Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler. “Changing the rules to let them stay in state custody is great but if you don’t give them resources to successfully age out … they need more than just leaving state custody to be able to live independently.”

Large nonprofits in New York City (Children’s Aid Society and The New York Foundling) and Pittsburgh (Pressley Ridge), will receive funding and support from Youth Villages to implement YVLifeset themselves.

“We thought about expanding ourselves, but it’s really difficult to move into a new jurisdiction, getting a board, fundraising, hiring staff, and starting all over,” said Lawler. “We had a model, a clinical trial, good systems in place, good staff to adhere to that model — so what if we found and identified organizations nationwide and trained them to do it?”

Youth Villages already operates YVLifeSet in Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee.

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