Rethinking Assessment Tools to Better Support Teens in Foster Care
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.