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KidsVoice’s Two-Generation Advocacy: Helping Former Foster Youth Succeed as Young Parents

Thomas Welshonce and Susan L Aglietti


  • KidsVoice represents children in child welfare cases and continues supporting clients up to age 24 to help them with housing, health, and employment, ensuring their independence as adults.
  • The program aims to break the cycle of foster care by addressing the needs of both former foster youth and their children, focusing on education, workforce skills, early child development, and family crisis management.
  • Through partnerships and support from foundations and local agencies, the program integrates services across child welfare, education, and healthcare systems, providing holistic support to prevent negative outcomes and reduce future foster care placements.
KidsVoice’s Two-Generation Advocacy: Helping Former Foster Youth Succeed as Young Parents
Silke Woweries via Getty Images

KidsVoice, a nonprofit legal agency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, represents children in child welfare cases in Allegheny County Juvenile Court and continues to work with clients through age 24—several years after they have aged out of the foster care system—to help them remove roadblocks to housing, health, and employment, so they can live independently as adults.

Studies show that 50 percent of children born to former foster youth will end up in foster care themselves. At KidsVoice, our two-generation advocacy program aims to break that cycle using a multidisciplinary model to provide legal and human services to our clients and to their children. Our two-generation advocacy brings a core focus on the education and workforce skill development of the parent, on the young child’s development and early learning, and on crisis management for the entire family to prevent a rapid downward spiral that often happens for young families without supports. This approach addresses the challenges of multigenerational poverty, persistent gaps in adult educational attainment and workforce preparedness, and developmental delays and lack of school readiness and success for children of foster youth.

Background and Need

According to the National Human Services Assembly, more than 1.4 million youth ages 15–24 are out of school and out of work and raising children. As the report notes, without education or early work experience, many youth lack the ability to find employment sufficient to support themselves and their children.

These risks and bleak results are more likely for children aging out of foster care. A significant number of former foster youth are pregnant or parenting teens or young adults. A study in Texas concluded that youth in foster care are five times more likely to become pregnant than youth outside the system. A study in Pediatrics notes that half of children born to mothers in foster care will end up in foster care themselves by age two. Data from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in early 2020 showed that, at that point in time, there were 1,016 former foster youth ages 18–25 who had a total of 1,652 children. With little to no safety net or support system, foster care youth who are young parents have little opportunity to achieve the kind of basic stability necessary to keep their own children out of the foster care system.

The Birth of Two-Generation Advocacy at KidsVoice

At KidsVoice, our core function for many years has been representing children from birth up to age 21 who are under the supervision of the child welfare system and the juvenile court. Using our multidisciplinary model, we advocate for clients not only in court but also in matters involving their education, medical and mental health needs, and disabilities. Our advocacy expanded in 2015 with the KidsVoice Bootstrap Project, which provides ongoing legal service and support to youth and young adults through age 24 who have aged out of the foster care system. Our Bootstrap Project’s success has been tied in part to the fact that many of these clients have known KidsVoice for several years and have come to trust that we will fight for them and will work to ensure that their needs are met. In October 2019, we began our two-generation advocacy program to address the needs of our clients who were parents and their children. For example, we may advocate for a young mother who needs our help with credit issues or to expunge a juvenile record to obtain an apartment and job. She may not know that her daughter is entitled to early childhood education to address developmental delays or that she can obtain free medical insurance coverage for her family. Her child also may be eligible for free or subsidized day care that could allow our client to complete a job training or education program.

For our parent clients, addressing housing, social security, healthcare, public benefits, and mental health treatment enables the former foster youth raising young children to improve economic security, mobility, and success. For the children of our parent clients, our two-generation advocacy protects their rights and ensures that they receive early child development programs such as child care, Head Start, and other pre-kindergarten learning programs; early intervention; supports for disabilities or developmental delays; speech therapy; medical care; and other services that they are eligible for and legally entitled to receive.

Services Available to Parents and Children Through Two-Generation Advocacy

The goal of the two-generation advocacy program is to support former foster youth and their children and to prevent negative outcomes—such as incarceration, mental or physical health crises, or homelessness—that may lead to removal of the children from the parents. Services include the following:

Employment and education. Through partnerships with local workforce development agencies, we help to enroll our clients in specialized training and employment programs where our clients can earn a living wage. For our clients who have not completed high school or wish to pursue post-secondary education, we assist them with identifying and enrolling in programs that will allow them to complete their education while they parent their children. For the children of our clients, we ensure that those children who qualify for special education support receive that support.

Health, behavioral health, and disability. We ensure that our clients and their children are enrolled in medical assistance or other insurance programs and know how to access medical and mental healthcare through those programs. Through a partnership with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, our clients can access a medical review for their children and can have a complete understanding of what medical care is available and recommended for their children.

Social justice. For our clients who have low-level criminal charges and are not entitled to a public defender because the charge does not carry the threat of incarceration, we help those clients avoid criminal records and unnecessary fines and fees through our legal representation in those matters. Allegheny County data show that our overall success rate in these cases is 79 percent, compared with 38 percent of other former foster youth who did not have representation and 46 percent for young adults who were never in the foster care system. In addition, we expunge our clients’ juvenile and adult criminal records, help them to restore their driver’s licenses when they have been administratively suspended for failing to pay old fines and fees, and help them with cleaning up their credit histories when their identities have been stolen by parents or former caregivers who put a credit card or utilities under the child’s name and Social Security number.

Housing, public benefits, and food security. The lack of available appropriate housing is one of the biggest issues that our clients and their children face. We ensure that our clients are enrolled in all available housing support programs, and we help them access available housing vouchers. When our clients or their children have disabilities and are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), we will file the application and, if necessary, handle appeals if the SSI claim is denied. We help our clients develop self-sufficiency skills by connecting them with local food banks and other community organizations that can provide concrete goods in an emergency and can provide long-term support and a sense of social connectedness.

A Success Story

Teresa is a 21-year-old single mother to 6-week-old Kary. (Teresa’s and Kary’s names have been changed to protect their identities and maintain client confidentiality. KidsVoice does not disclose the names of clients.) Teresa spent years in and out of the foster care system and juvenile courts, and she desperately does not want that for her infant son. Teresa suffered extended periods of sexual abuse beginning at age nine. She tried living with family members, but no one was able to be a responsible caregiver for her. Once when she was living with an older sister, her sister’s boyfriend raped her—she was only 14 years old. The extreme trauma of her childhood had left Teresa shy, withdrawn, and very hesitant to ask for help. But with Kary’s birth, Teresa was determined to make a better life for him. Unfortunately, she had just been evicted from her apartment because she could not afford the rent.

Teresa reached out to KidsVoice. We quickly helped Teresa form a plan for coordinating the resources she needed to care for herself and her son. The first step was to find subsidized housing for Teresa in a different neighborhood. KidsVoice also helped Teresa quickly find a new primary care physician near her new apartment as well as a nurse who would visit Teresa’s apartment to make sure that she and Kary were doing well. We helped connect Teresa with a therapist who would be able to see her in a few weeks; in the interim, we arranged therapy services for Teresa at a local day shelter. KidsVoice also helped Teresa take advantage of other resources, including financial literacy classes, free clothes and furniture, and a career fair.

After addressing those immediate crisis needs, we helped Teresa to find a job and apply for a driver’s license. We connected Teresa with subsidized child care where she has access to free parenting classes. Teresa had taken a few classes at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and was interested in possibly returning, but those scattered classes had already created a significant debt and she was unable to obtain full academic credit for those classes. KidsVoice advocated to create an affordable debt payment plan along with a longer-term academic plan that includes a credit-recovery strategy. Teresa re-enrolled at CCAC in the fall of 2020, when a new Pennsylvania law took effect that allowed her to attend CCAC free of charge as a former foster youth. KidsVoice advocated for that change in state law and policy, and we will be there each step of the way to advise Teresa and help her achieve the stable life she wants for herself and Kary.

Funding and Replication of the Two-Generation Advocacy Program

This innovative prevention-focused advocacy is consistent with the growing federal focus on promoting service integration—between the child welfare and mental health systems (through the Systems of Care model); between child welfare and K–12 education with a focus on lost learning among foster children; and within the context of health and mental health parity (through the Affordable Care Act). For that reason, foundations and other donors have been excited about funding the project. In addition, Allegheny County has been very supportive of our efforts, both in providing funding and spreading the word among child welfare caseworkers and other staff so that those providers are aware of our services and can refer former clients back to us for assistance with legal issues, public benefit entitlements, and other supports. Thanks in part to this support, we are able to provide assistance to these clients—who already know and trust us— and we can reduce the numbers of the next generation of youth in foster care, which is a win for all involved. We are happy to discuss ways that other organizations might replicate and fund two-generation work in their jurisdictions.