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Proving I Exist: Strategies for Assisting Youth in Obtaining Identification Documents

Laura Katherine Kolb and Jennifer Pokempner


  • Identification is crucial for transition-aged youth to access services, education, and employment opportunities.
  • Homeless and system-involved youth face significant challenges in obtaining identification documents, such as birth certificates and state identification.
  • Barriers include verification problems, residency requirements, cost, age restrictions, limitations on requestors, lack of safe storage, and unclear processes.
  • Advocacy strategies include enforcing existing child welfare laws, providing legal clinics for document requests, changing state laws and policies, and using litigation to challenge burdensome requirements.
Proving I Exist: Strategies for Assisting Youth in Obtaining Identification Documents
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The Importance of Identification to Transition Aged Youth

In today's world, identification is needed to move around, to access services and benefits, and to take advantage of all opportunities for education and employment. Identification is often needed to enter buildings, prove eligibility for public benefits and services, and enroll in school or get hired for a job.

When you cannot prove who you are in an official way, it is hard to establish yourself in the world as an adult who can live on your own, work, pay your bills, and complete the daily tasks required to take care of yourself, much less build a future. While identification—state-issued identification, Social Security cards, and birth certificates—is vital to a youth's success as an adult, it can be extremely challenging to obtain when the person who needs the identification is homeless and is a youth or young adult who does not have a parent or family to provide assistance.

Because identification is so important to accessing benefits, services, and opportunities, states establish requirements that seek to ensure that the person requesting proof of identification is truly the person who is the subject of the document. These requirements have become progressively more stringent in federal and state law. For example, in the area of state identification, to align with the REAL ID Act of 2005, states must require the following: proof of identity, including full legal name and date of birth; proof of lawful immigration status; proof of Social Security number or verification that the person is not eligible for one; and proof of residence that includes the person's full legal name and address. More restrictive voter identification laws have had an impact as well. These requirements can often stand in the way of youth accessing the vital records they need to take steps out of or prevent homelessness.

Most youth and young adults have their identification documents (ID) because their parents or family members got them and kept them safe, or helped the youth obtain these documents as they got older. For many youth who are system involved or homeless and on their own, this may not be the case. There may not be an adult to help them navigate a complicated system, and they may not have access to any of the information or documents needed to successfully make a request. They also may not have any safe place to store their ID. For these youth and young adults, the challenge of obtaining an ID can be almost as daunting as trying to navigate in today's world without it.

In this article, we will focus on the particular challenges that youth and young adults between the ages of 16–26 who are on their own or are aging out of the juvenile justice and/or child welfare systems face in obtaining and maintaining their vital documents. We will focus on birth certificates and state identification and will outline some of the key barriers youth face in obtaining their vital documents and then suggest strategies for individual and policy advocacy to address these barriers.

Barriers to Accessing ID for Homeless Youth and Young Adults

There are multiple barriers for youth in obtaining their ID. This article relies on and builds on the conversations started by two excellent resources: the National Network for Youth's State-by-State Guide to Obtaining ID Cards (2017) and the Center for American Progress's Expanding ID Card Access for LGBT Homeless Youth (2015). These publications provide a wealth of information about the laws in each state for obtaining state identification. They also identify key barriers to access for youth and make recommendations for policy and law reform. We agree with the barriers they identify for state identification and use this opportunity to add to the list. Many of the barriers identified below are shared by adults, especially those who are poor or are homeless. However, the element of youth and young adulthood adds additional challenges and barriers that we think are unique and warrant special attention and strategies.

Identification verification problems—the catch-22

In most states, for each vital document a young person seeks to obtain—state identification, birth certificate, and Social Security card—other vital identification documents are required to "prove" things such as identity, citizenship, age, and residency. Commonly accepted forms of verification include birth certificates, utility bills, and driver's licenses. For many homeless youth, these items do not exist or are not accessible. Birth records may have been lost, or a young person may never have had a residence of his or her own to establish utility service. And when attempts are made to replace missing records, those without any ID quickly find themselves caught in a classic catch-22: in Pennsylvania, as in most other jurisdictions, an applicant cannot obtain photo ID without a birth certificate, and yet a birth certificate will not be issued without photo ID. Often youth and young adults who are not connected to family do not have any of these documents and find it difficult to reach a starting point where they can obtain one document that will assist them in getting the others.

Residency verification problems

For homeless and unstably housed youth, strict requirements on residency that do not permit alternatives can block access to vital documents based on the instability of their living situation and their lack of history of living on their own. In addition, policies that lack clear guidance that youth in state care (such as foster care or a juvenile justice facility) can use the address of a placement or the agency that has responsibility for them can also be a barrier.


Many of these documents have costs that young people cannot afford and provide no avenue for a fee waiver.

Limitations on the type and age of requestors

In some states, youth need to be a certain age to request their vital documents, and some require parental consent. In states that allow other individuals to request vital documents on a youth's behalf—either because of age or because the youth does not have proof of his or her identification and needs the requestor to present that information—the class of individuals allowed is usually narrow. In many states, only a parent, guardian, or legal representative can request a vital document for a youth. For youth who do not have or want a relationship with a parent or guardian, such a requirement can block access.

Lack of places to keep documents safe

Some youth do not have their vital documents because they did not have a safe place to keep them in the midst of episodes of housing instability, placement change, or being in a placement that did not permit safekeeping of property or documents. Without locations or practices that increase the odds that youth have a safe place to store, and also access, their vital documents, youth are at high risk for not having these documents when they need them.

Lack of a youth-friendly and understandable process

Most states have a complicated patchwork of laws and policies on obtaining vital records. They can be complicated even for a lawyer to understand. Amending complicated policies that block youth from obtaining vital documents is advisable. However, until policies are changed, existing policies should be communicated in clear and easy to understand formats for youth and young adults.

Not having appropriate and accessible policies for gender marker changes

Youth and young adults who are transgender face the additional challenge of receiving state identification with a gender marker they do not identify with. The publication Expanding ID Card Access for LGBT Homeless Youth provides detail on the potential risks to youth of having identification documents that do not match a youth's chosen name and identity. The publication reports that many states require proof of transition-related surgery, court order, or an amended birth certificate, or do not provide a clear policy. Such policies stand in the way of youth obtaining identification that can help them access services, benefits, and opportunities in a way that is consistent with their identity and plans for their future. Identification that does not allow this makes youth vulnerable to abuse and may limit their opportunities.

Advocacy Strategies

Laws and policies should be changed to make it easier for youth and young adults to obtain and keep safe their vital identification documents. If we want transition aged youth, especially those who are homeless or who are "disconnected," commonly defined as neither in school nor working, to have a fair shot at success as adults, simplifying these processes and making them more responsive to the realities of youth and young adults must be a priority. Setting the expectation that youth become "connected" through employment, going to college or training, saving money, and securing housing is unrealistic if we do not have a system that ensures that they have their vital documents. Below we share some strategies for individual and system advocacy. We end with a discussion of litigation opportunities. As with the barriers section of this article, these suggestions support and build upon those presented by the Center for American Progress and the National Network for Youth.

Individual Advocacy

Enforce existing child welfare law

Under the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, the child welfare agency must provide youth who leave the child welfare system at age 18 or older the original or certified copy of the following documents: birth certificate; Social Security card; state identification card or driver's license; health insurance information, including any cards needed to access care; and medical records. 42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(I). While federal law requires that this be part of the transition/discharge planning process, it is recommended that these documents be obtained well before discharge, ideally around age 16 or 17, to make sure they are available when a youth discharges and to facilitate effective discharge planning, which may include application for benefits, housing, and other crucial services that require ID.

Attorneys for youth should ask that the court make findings that the youth has these documents in his or her possession before discharge and ask for orders for documents to be obtained if they have not satisfied the requirement. Attorneys should challenge discharges that are made without the provision of these vital documents. Some states have enacted laws or court rules that prohibit discharges without an acceptable transition plan, including the provision of vital documents. For example, Pennsylvania's juvenile court rules require that a transition plan be developed and approved by the court before jurisdiction over a child can be terminated. The plan must include verification that the required vital documents have been provided to the youth. 237 Pa. Code R. 1631(E).

Include securing vital documents in the reentry plan for youth in the juvenile justice system

Securing vital documents is essential to the reentry process so that a young person can get a job, enroll in school, and access benefits, if needed. For young people who do not have a family or strong support system to go home to, securing identification before they discharge from the system is vital.

Attorneys for youth should include obtaining a youth's documents in a client's reentry plan as early as possible so that the processes to obtain the documents can be followed in a timely fashion and be carried out while the youth's team can provide assistance in the process.

Develop vital documents legal clinics

Lawyers can play a powerful role in assisting youth in obtaining ID because they can help youth navigate the complicated requirements for each form of identification. Lawyers can also reduce barriers to accessing ID by being the requestor of the document. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, allow a "legal representative" to request vital documents, like a birth certificate, on the youth's behalf. This provision makes it possible for an attorney to apply for a birth certificate on behalf of a client, without the documentary proof of the client's identity or address. Instead, the attorney-applicant provides a copy of his or her valid photo ID, along with the application paperwork and requisite fee. Once the birth certificate is secured, the client can begin to assemble the other documents needed to secure photo ID.

The "attorney as applicant" method of securing birth certificates for those without proof of identity and address can easily be implemented in a legal clinic setting. The Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) is a legal services organization offering representation in a wide range of civil matters for individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. Utilizing an outreach model, HAP conducts client intake at regularly scheduled legal clinics staffed by HAP attorneys and pro bono partners from area law firms, corporations, and law schools. To increase access to services, clinics are held on-site at shelters, soup kitchens, youth day programs, and overnight cafes—locations where HAP clients eat, sleep, and get their mail. During the past several years, HAP noted significant increases in the number of clients presenting with no ID. When the demand for birth certificates eventually outpaced capacity at regular clinics, HAP began to conduct semimonthly clinics devoted solely to obtaining in-state and out-of-state birth certificates. Birth certificate clinics have proven to be an extremely efficient way to provide services to large numbers of clients within a short time frame. For example, at one two-hour-long clinic, 28 volunteers prepared birth certificate applications for 197 clients from Pennsylvania and 16 other states. In addition, requesting birth certificates and assisting with acquiring other vital documents is a great pro bono project because it is a very discrete task that can be completed in a short period of time.

Clinics for youth and young adults can be scheduled in locations easily accessible and familiar to them, such as schools, drop-in centers, health centers, and young adult housing programs. While efforts to effect policy changes should be encouraged, in the interim, the clinic model can be a useful strategy to meet the immediate needs of youth.

Identify locations where youth can store vital documents

Some youth do not have their identification because they did not have a safe place to keep it and it was lost or misplaced. If a youth is homeless or housing insecure, it can be difficult to keep important items like identification safe. Some youth in foster care also report not having safe places to store their documents. Identifying locations or service providers that would allow youth to store their identification is one way to increase the odds that youth will have access to their ID when it is needed. Clear policies that youth in foster care must have both access to their vital documents and safe places to store these and other property are also essential.

Some jurisdictions are piloting electronic storage solutions, especially for youth aging out of foster care. My JumpVault in Florida and the platform HealthShack provide models for electronic storing of identification and other important documents. While these resources do not allow for the storage of original documents, they can help youth keep secure documents that may be valuable in obtaining their ID so that they can avoid the catch-22 verification problem.

Policy Advocacy

The following are recommended practices that could be enacted through law, regulation, or other form of policy.

  • Require that vital documents are obtained as soon as any child enters the child welfare system and that an additional verification that these documents are in the case file occurs at age 16 for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
  • Ensure that your state has a clear policy that reflects the federal requirement that youth in the child welfare system receive their vital documents before they discharge from care.

Policy highlight

New York City has a municipal regulation that requires that the child welfare agency annually report the number of youth who have their vital documents at age 17 and in their possession upon discharge from care. N.Y. City Admin. Code § 21-908.

Practice highlight

To streamline birth certificate requests, New York City's child welfare agency has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Health. Private agencies, which are responsible for the bulk of the delivery of child welfare services in New York City, make the request to a designated unit at the child welfare agency. The agency, as the requestor, must attest that the child is in placement with the child welfare agency, and provides the court document in addition to the information requested on the birth certificate request form. Requests are made by the designated unit, which makes sure the applications are complete. The child welfare agency usually requests three birth certificates for each youth. Once the direct service provider agencies receive the birth certificate, they assist the youth in obtaining state identification.

  • Amend state laws and policies to clarify that a child welfare worker or juvenile justice professional can request vital documents on behalf of a youth as long as the requestor can provide his or her identity along with verification of the youth's system relationship.
  • Amend state laws and policies to reduce identification verification requirements for youth who are in the care of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including allowing child welfare and juvenile justice records to serve as proof of identity.
  • Amend state laws and policies to make clear that system-involved youth can use the address of their placement or of the child welfare or probation office to prove residency.
  • Amend state laws and policies to allow fee waivers for system-involved youth for all ID.
  • Amend state laws and policies to allow social service professionals providing services to homeless youth to request vital documents as long as they can provide verification of their identity and relationship to the youth.

Policy highlight

The New York Department of Motor Vehicles allows a government or government-approved facility representative to verify a "homeless or disenfranchised" youth's identity for the purpose of securing state photo ID. Proof of date of birth and a Social Security card must still be presented.

  • Amend state laws and policies to allow alternative verification processes for proof of identity. This should include:
    • Allowing school and medical records to serve as reasonable alternatives to more formal ID as these records always include the youth's name and date of birth and in some instances would also include a Social Security number and/or parent names.
    • Ensuring that attorneys and individuals who are child welfare, juvenile justice, or homeless service providers are able to be requestors with appropriate verification of their relationship to the youth.
    • Permitting self-attestation of a youth's identity when all other alternatives have been exhausted.
  • Amend state laws and policies to allow alternative verification processes for proof of residence, including allowing a service provider or mailing address to be used.
  • Amend state laws and policies to allow fee waivers for homeless youth and create reasonable requirements for proof of homelessness that may include self-attestation.
  • Amend state laws and policies to ensure that youth are permitted to have their chosen gender marker on their identification.
  • Make information on how to request and obtain identification youth friendly and provide meaningful assistance for youth who need it.
  • Provide youth and young adults safe places in the community to store their documents if they are not stably housed, and ensure that child welfare and juvenile justice systems also have policies that ensure a youth's property and documents are protected.

Litigation as a Strategy for Policy Improvement

As discussed above, HAP has utilized the "attorney as applicant" method to secure large numbers of replacement birth certificates for clients from Pennsylvania and numerous other jurisdictions. However, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) proved to be the exception, with stringent and inflexible identification requirements that differed not only from other states, but also from the rest of New York. These requirements compelled applicants to provide a valid government-issued photo ID, or in the alternative two proofs of current address, and as a result the birth certificate applications for NYC-born residents of Philadelphia who were homeless and without conventional ID were repeatedly denied. After multiple attempts to negotiate a workable solution for HAP clients failed, a federal lawsuit against the NYC DOHMH was filed by HAP and two plaintiffs in September 2016. Complaint, Homeless Advocacy Project v. City of New York, No. 1:16-cv-07439 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2016).

The plaintiffs asserted a substantive due process claim, arguing that they had a property interest in a birth record, as well as the social, economic, and other benefits for which a birth certificate is a necessary prerequisite. The plaintiffs contended that NYC vital records policies at the time created barriers that were impossible to overcome given their circumstances, leaving them without access to their own birth records. By extension, the plaintiffs were unable to obtain photo ID and were thus deprived of other benefits flowing from possession of a photo ID, including access to housing, medical services, and employment opportunities. The plaintiffs argued that the NYC policy infringed on these liberty and property interests in a manner that was unconstitutional and further claimed that the policy deprived them of their procedural due process rights.

The case was settled in April 2017, establishing an attorney protocol for birth certificate requests for all individuals born in New York City. Stipulation and Order of Settlement and Discontinuance, Homeless Advocacy Project v. City of New York, No. 1:16-cv-07439 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 27, 2017). The protocol allows an attorney to request a birth certificate on behalf of a client and provides alternatives, including submitting a signed statement by the attorney, to provide proof of identification when traditional means are not available.

Although this litigation resulted in a settlement, it provides ideas for legal strategies that advocates could present on behalf of youth to challenge burdensome requirements for obtaining ID. Advocates can argue that the status and realities of youth and young adulthood add even more barriers to access than do procedures for adults who may have more experience navigating systems and accumulated more documents and proof of their identity. Litigation could put pressure on states to make reforms that would improve access to vital documents for youth.


Individual advocacy that assists youth in obtaining their identification documents and systemic advocacy that results in policies to make obtaining identification easier for transition age youth are crucial to providing youth a fair shot at success as they enter adulthood. This advocacy is also a key homelessness prevention strategy and response to current housing instability. Without identification, youth will remain disconnected from school, work, and the institutions in our communities that we want them to connect with. Lawyers can play an important role in helping youth and young adults obtain their identification with our current laws and policies by offering legal clinics, enforcing transition planning requirements, and providing post-dispositional representation around reentry planning. Lawyers can also play a role in changing laws and policies through litigation and by advocating for new laws and policies.