Rethinking Assessment Tools to Better Support Teens in Foster Care

Posted February 4, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
An older woman and younger man sit on chairs facing one another. They are in a classroom like setting and smiling at each other.

Kai Cot­ton, age 25, works as the lead youth nav­i­ga­tor at A Place for Me host­ed by YWCA Greater Cleve­land. Her days are devot­ed to pre­vent­ing home­less­ness among young peo­ple, includ­ing those who have aged out of fos­ter care in Ohio’s Cuya­hoga County. 

It’s a cause she feels pas­sion­ate­ly about — and one that’s deeply personal.

Jim Casey Young Fel­low Advo­cates for Teens in Care 

Just two years after aging out of fos­ter care at age 18, Cot­ton found her­self couch surf­ing and unpre­pared for adult life. She need­ed help. 

Through her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® and its Advanced Youth Lead­er­ship Insti­tute, the Cleve­land native gained skills, found her foot­ing — and her voice — and launched Project Tran­si­tion. The ini­tia­tive, as described by Cot­ton, aims to embed intense tran­si­tion­al sup­ports and inde­pen­dent liv­ing skills into the eman­ci­pa­tion of fos­ter care.” 

The Sta­tus Quo: An Ear­ly, Incom­plete Picture 

Decid­ing which sup­ports and life skills teens need, how­ev­er, can be a challenge. 

Case­work­ers, includ­ing those in Cuya­hoga County’s Divi­sion of Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, typ­i­cal­ly assess young peo­ple on adult top­ics like job hunt­ing, bank­ing and health care. This assess­ment usu­al­ly takes place just once — when an indi­vid­ual turns 14

More infor­ma­tion — and more cur­rent infor­ma­tion — is crit­i­cal, says Cot­ton, if we want to aid old­er or for­mer fos­ter care youth in suc­cess­ful­ly and smooth­ly tran­si­tion­ing to adulthood. 

What young peo­ple know at 14 isn’t what they know or need to know at 16 or at 18 or even old­er,” explains Cot­ton. I’m advo­cat­ing for an assess­ment that can be done at 14, 16, 18 — and for talk­ing about their devel­op­ment and their needs — to paint a more accu­rate pic­ture of where they are.” 

A Bet­ter Option: Casey Life Skills Assessment 

Thank­ful­ly, such a tool already exists. The Casey Life Skills assess­ment, pro­duced by Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams, is specif­i­cal­ly designed for youth ages 14 to 21. I think it is a bet­ter gauge of what is hap­pen­ing in young people’s lives because it’s an assess­ment you do over a peri­od of time,” says Cotton. 

This tool can aid case­work­ers in: 

  • Iden­ti­fy­ing skill gaps ear­ly, while there is still time to adjust a young person’s learn­ing plans.
  • Ensur­ing that indi­vid­ual learn­ing plans remain rel­e­vant as young peo­ple grow — and as the pan­dem­ic, tech­nol­o­gy, and the econ­o­my change the fields of work, bank­ing, edu­ca­tion and health care.
  • Under­stand­ing the chang­ing strengths, strug­gles and goals of young people. 

While an assess­ment at age 14 is valu­able, the old stan­dard is out­dat­ed” by the time youth are ready to tran­si­tion out of care, Cot­ton says. In some states, the thresh­old for aging out of fos­ter care is age 18. In oth­er states, it’s even lat­er — age 21

The Casey Life Skills assess­ment can help for­mu­late a roadmap for what the young per­son and their sup­ports can work on next to ensure they are pre­pared when they tran­si­tion out of care,” says Christie Sozio, the asso­ciate direc­tor of A Place for Me, which is one of 17 Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive sites nationwide. 

Sozio served as Cotton’s project coach in the Advanced Youth Lead­er­ship Insti­tute. In this role, she found her­self prais­ing anoth­er impor­tant tool: first­hand expe­ri­ence. We want to get to where it’s not rad­i­cal to think that young peo­ple are experts in their own lives,” she says. 

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