Pennsylvania Moves to Find Families for Teens in Foster Care
Recent changes in a Pennsylvania law expand efforts to find supportive families and caregivers for teens in foster care. The new provision improves recruitment practices for families and helps prepare young people to thrive as they age out of foster care and into adulthood. The changes took effect on January 2, 2023.
“This is a huge win for more than 5,500 children in foster care who are ages 14 and older,” says Rachael M. Miller, policy director of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a Casey grantee.
Increasing Support for Teens in Foster Care
The new law curbs county agencies’ use of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) — a process that allows local child welfare officials to prioritize independence over federally preferred family relationships for older youth — by raising the age of eligibility from ages 16 to 18. It compels county agencies to persist in the hard work of locating families for teens in foster care, requiring them to document their efforts. Case planning to determine placement now must continue until a child is 21 years old.
In addition to changing APPLA eligibility, the law — which was approved by state legislators and Governor Tom Wolf in late 2022 — requires:
- Child welfare workers to identify young people’s kin as potential caregivers, when available, and include this kin in planning for young people’s future. One goal of this effort is to ensure contact information for relatives will be available to young people who are preparing to age out of foster care.
- An increase in the number of adults recruited to help support a teen in foster care, as listed in the child’s court-approved transition plan. Past law required caseworkers to identify one adult connection for a youth. Agencies must now identify at least two and document how those supportive connections were included in permanency planning.
- Strengthened accountability by giving judges the power to determine that young people have received support services and an appropriate transition plan.
- A revamp of data collection practices by the state’s 67 county child welfare agencies. They must more clearly show how the older youth they serve are faring.
“The change means county agencies and caseworkers will have an additional two years, or more, to search for long-term family placements for young people who need supportive adults in their lives,” Miller said. “We are really doing all we can to set this population up for success.”
More Stable Connections for Teens
Planning for independence is considered a last resort. Child welfare agencies should instead focus on permanency options that provide a family: adoption, reunification with the birth family or guardianship.
Previously, Pennsylvania law permitted counties to place youth in an APPLA arrangement at age 16, giving up on helping build family relationships just as young people’s development requires these vital connections. Some teens would stay in group care settings until they aged out of foster care. In many cases, the agencies assigning teens to APPLA would stop looking for the permanent placements and caregivers that would help those young people thrive.
According to the Casey Foundation’s 2018 Fostering Youth Transitions, an estimated 37% of young Pennsylvanians who aged out of foster care did not have stable housing. The report also highlighted the needs of older youth, a quarter of whom had not finished high school or earned a high school equivalency certificate. Data show that young people who have been in foster care experience poorer outcomes by age 21 than their peers not in the system. This kind of data — as well as testimony from young people with foster care experience — helped Pennsylvania advocates urge lawmakers to strengthen efforts that connect teens with families.
Young people need, want and deserve more than APPLA provides,” said Leslie Gross, director of the Casey Foundation’s Family Well-Being Strategy Group. “We hope more states will follow Pennsylvania’s example of relying less on APPLA and more on connecting young people with kin and trusted adults in their own communities. Legal permanency options that form families, such as kinship and the proposed SOUL Family option that Kansas is piloting, address young people’s need for rock-solid relationships that help them thrive.”