September 01, 2016

Implementing the Youth Provisions of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act: Youth Engagement, Transition Planning, and Discharge Documents

Jennifer Pokempner

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (SFA) includes new provisions for older youth in foster care. Courts must oversee these provisions and work with the child welfare agency to develop policies and enforce them.

This article outlines the provisions of the SFA relating to youth engagement, transition planning, and discharge documents. It helps practitioners understand the law related to case planning and transition planning for older youth, how the new provisions will improve outcomes for youth, and how courts can implement the new provisions. A discussion of policy and practice changes needed to implement the provisions is also included. Future articles will detail other provisions: normalcy activities, and runaway youth.

Understanding the Law


What are the case planning1 provisions related to youth engagement?

For children ages 14 and older, the SFA requires the following:

  • The child welfare agency documents that the youth is consulted when developing the case plan.2

  • Youth must be provided with a list of their rights as part of the case planning process. The list of rights must be part of the case plan and should address “education, health, visitation, and court participation,” the right to discharge documents, and to “stay safe and avoid exploitation.”3  The case plan must include a signed acknowledgement that the list of rights has been received and “explained to the child in age-appropriate way.”4  

  • The youth must be allowed to involve two individuals in case planning who are not a foster parent or part of the casework staff. One of these individuals may be an advocate on normalcy issues.5

What are the “aging out” and transition to adulthood provisions?

The SFA requires that:

  • The case plan document the services provided to a youth beginning at age 14 to aid in the successful transition to adulthood.6 

  • If leaving care at age 18 or older, the youth must be provided with the original or certified copy of the following documents: birth certificate, social security card, state identification card/driver’s license, health insurance information, including any cards needed to access care, and medical records.7

How do these provisions change the law?

The SFA makes positive changes to the transition planning requirements for older youth.

  • It lowers the age at which transition to adulthood services must be provided to youth to age 14 from age 16.

  • It creates a new requirement to provide youth with their vital documents upon discharge from the system at age 18 or older. No such requirement previously existed.

  • It requires the child welfare agency to consult with youth when developing their permanency and transition plans. Before this requirement, only the court needed to consult with youth regarding their permanency and transition plans.

  • It creates a new requirement that youth age 14 and older be permitted to select additional members of the case planning team, including an advocate on normalcy.

  • It creates a new requirement that beginning at age 14 youth be provided a list of their rights as part of the case planning process.

What are the goals of the provisions and how will they improve outcomes?

The provisions aim to improve outcomes by enhancing the quality and effectiveness of case planning. Planning for adulthood is more effective when it is started earlier and when attention is paid to crucial elements of a successful transition such as providing vital documents. In addition, when youth are educated and informed they are better equipped to advocate for themselves and to be invested in the goals and progress of their case plan. Similarly, providing youth with advocacy and support in case planning enhances the system’s responsiveness to the youth and builds in more accountability.

How can courts implement these provisions effectively?

The court ensures youth are engaged in case planning by modeling practices in court and asking questions that ensure the SFA provisions are being implemented.

Youth who feel engaged in the court process are more likely to speak up and participate in permanency and transition planning.8 Similarly, the case planning team will take its cues from the court: if the court values youth participation, it is more likely the case planning team will too.

The court enforces the law and reinforces its value. In terms of enforcement of SFA provisions, the court can ask about the frequency and type of youth participation in case planning. The court can ask whether youth are given the required list of rights, help youth understand what they mean, and provide avenues for redress if they are violated.

Finally, the court plays a gatekeeping role: ensuring that transition planning occurs beginning at age 14, and that youth do not leave the system at age 18 or older without an appropriate plan. Under the SFA, these inquiries should be part of the court review. Court oversight is also important to ensure youth receive their vital documents before transitioning from the system.

The Court’s Role in Policy Development

Implementing the new law will require changes to policy and practice in the child welfare agency and the court. Courts have an important role as leaders and partners in policy development, and they are uniquely suited to model collaboration.

Questions the Court Can Ask about Policy Development and the New Provisions

  • Has law, regulation, and court rule been amended or developed to implement federal policy?

  • Has the court been involved in developing this policy?

  • Are there areas the court believes it should lead, or for which it should develop its own policy through court rule or other means?
  • Have youth been engaged in developing policy around the youth engagement provisions?
  • Has any training been provided so youth are more equipped to participate, and so the court and those involved in case planning are more equipped to engage youth?
  • How does the court ensure the youth age 14 and older have been provided a list of rights as part of the case planning process? For example, will the list be provided at court hearings? Will the court play a role in explaining the rights?
  • How does the court ensure youth who are discharging at 18 or older receive the newly required documents? Will the court make a finding whether these documents have been provided before a case can be discharged?
  • How does the court promote new policies that allow youth to involve two individuals who are not the foster parent or caseworker in case planning? Will the court ask if the youth is aware of this option?
  • Are there court policies/initiatives to facilitate youth engagement in court?

    • Youth-friendly notices about court?
    • Older youth specialty courts?
    • Peer advocates in court?
    • Youth-friendly court schedules?
    • Policies to allow different modes of participation?
    • Surveys to get consistent feedback about youth participation in court?

Questions to Ask at Hearings

  • What services is a youth age 14 or older receiving to successfully transition to adulthood? Are these services helping the youth achieve established goals?
  • Was the youth allowed to identify two individuals to be part of the case planning team who are not the social worker or foster parent?
  • Has the youth age 14 and older participated in developing the case plan?

    • How did the youth participate?
    • Does the youth understand the main case plan goals?
    • Has the youth age 14 or older been provided a list of rights as part of the case planning process?
  • If the youth is approaching age 18 or older and preparing to discharge from the system, has he or she been provided an original or certified copy of: birth certificate, social security card, state identification card/driver’s license, health insurance information, including any cards needed to access care, and medical records?
  • Are there any other documents under state law and policy that must be provided to the youth before discharge?

    • Proof the youth was in foster care at age 16 or older to be eligible for Chafee services, including the Education and Training Voucher?

Preparing Youth for Court

Issues to investigate and discuss with the youth

  • How has the youth been included in case planning?

    • Does he or she attend case planning meetings?
    • Does he or she speak and actively participate?
    • Has the youth received any training or support preparing for case planning meetings?
    • Are there peer advocacy programs or trainings in your jurisdiction that the youth could join?
  • Do you attend the youth’s case planning meetings?
  • Do you prepare the youth to participate in these meetings?
  • Was the youth allowed to select two people who are not the caseworker or foster parent to attend case planning meetings?
  • Have you helped the youth identify individuals to attend the case planning meetings?
  • Has the youth received the required list of rights?

    • Does the youth understand these rights?
    • Does the youth identify any rights that have been violated or are of concern that should be addressed in court?
  • Have you reviewed the case plan, including the services a youth age 14 or older should be receiving to help transition to adulthood?
  • Does the youth need any transition or other services that are not identified in the plan?
  • If the youth is not a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident, does his or her case plan identify and include efforts to achieve permanent immigration status?
  • If the youth is approaching age 18 or older and preparing to discharge from the system, have all vital documents (including proof of valid immigration status, if applicable) been provided to the youth?

    • If no, what orders should be requested to obtain the needed documents?
    • If no, should another hearing date be requested before the youth can be discharged?
  • If the youth is age 18 or older and preparing to discharge from the system, has an acceptable transition plan been presented?

    • If no, what orders should be requested to ensure an appropriate plan is in place?
    • If no, should another hearing date be requested before the youth can be discharged?
  • Is the youth prepared to respond to the court about his or her involvement in the case plan?

    • Have you helped the youth practice his or her response verbally or in writing?
    • Have you explained to the youth what will happen in court and who will be present?
    • Do you need to make any special requests or arrangements so the youth is comfortable responding in court about participation and case planning?

      • Would the youth like to submit something in writing?
      • Would the youth like to speak to the judge in chambers if allowed?
      • Would the youth like a support person, like a therapist available?

Jennifer Pokempner is a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia, PA. She wrote this article in collaboration with the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s Youth Engagement Project with support from Casey Family Programs.

This article was adapted from Issue Brief: The Role of the Court in Implementing the Youth Provisions of the Strengthening Families Act, February 2016, by the ABA Youth Engagement Project, a project of the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

 

Endnotes

1. The case planning responsibility is defined at 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(1) and applies to youth of all ages. Beginning at age 14, the case plan must include “a written description of the programs and services which will help such a child prepare for the transition from foster care to a successful adulthood.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(1)(D). No later than during the 90-day period prior to a youth’s discharge from the child welfare system or the termination of services provided under 42 U.S.C.A. § 677 at age 18 or older, a transition plan must be developed with the youth. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(H). The transition plan should be part of the case plan and aligned with its goals. It should at least include “specific options on housing, health insurance, education, local opportunities for mentors and continuing support services, and work force supports and employment services” and information about health care decision making, including the “option to execute a health care power of attorney, health care proxy, or other similar document recognized under State law.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(H). As discussed in more detail below, when a youth discharges from the child welfare system at age 18 or older, the child welfare agency must also provide to the young adult his or her birth certificate, social security card, state identification card/driver’s license, health insurance information, including any cards needed to access care, and medical records. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(I).

2.  42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(C)(iv).

3.  42 U.S.C.A. § 675a(b)(1).

4. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675a(b)(2).

5.  42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(C)(iv). This provision also requires that the child welfare agency develop a policy to challenge the identification of any of these individuals if the agency believes they are not acting in the child’s best interest.

6.  42 U.S.C.A. § 675(1)(D).

7.  42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(I). While this requirement applies to youth who have been in the child welfare system for at least 6 months, it is recommended that this requirement be applied to any youth who discharges at age 18 or older even if they were in care for less than six months since they will still have similar transition needs that rely on these vital documents.

8.  For more information and tools related to the importance of youth engagement in their court hearings, please visit the webpage of the American Bar Association’s National Youth Engagement Project.