When children are not able to live safely at home, the
Department of Children and Families, pursuant to an order from the
Juvenile Court (or, in some instances, the Family and Probate
Court), will place them in foster care. Foster care is meant to be
temporary, but many stay in DCF custody for years, sometimes for
the duration of their childhood. Each year, approximately 800 youth
in Massachusetts turn 18 and "age out" of DCF.
The struggles that these young people face in the adult world are
well documented. Various national studies1 indicate that
they are more likely to be homeless and less likely to have
completed high school (let alone be enrolled in college) than their
peers. They are more likely to be victims of crime and to struggle
with health and mental health issues. Recent research in
Massachusetts2suggests similar heartbreaking outcomes
In order to mitigate these harms, for many years DCF has worked
with young adults after their 18th birthday on a mutually voluntary
basis, providing them continued shelter, support and other
services, sometimes until they turn 22.
However, these services have been paid for exclusively with state
dollars; since the inception of a national foster care program in
the 1970s, the federal government has only provided funds to states
to care for children under the age of 18. During the difficult
budget cycles of the last few years, DCF has been cutting back its
commitment to this population, since there is no mandate in state
law for them to provide assistance past 18.3
Fortunately, additional help for this vulnerable group is now
available. In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to
Success and Increasing Adoptions Act ("Fostering Connections"),
with wide bipartisan support, and President George W. Bush signed
it into law.4
Among other things, Fostering Connections gives states the option
of taking federal matching funds to support foster youth who remain
in the child welfare department's care past their 18th
birthday.5 In exchange for this unprecedented federal
support, states must ensure that the same policies and procedural
protections that are in place for all foster children under 18 also
apply locally to young adults over 18.
Because Massachusetts has already been investing state dollars to
support this vulnerable population, it was an easy choice to accept
the federal funds. However, certain key revisions to the General
Laws were required in order to bring Juvenile Court and DCF
practices into compliance with federal law.6 Last fall,
Gov. Deval Patrick signed these changes into law, which became
effective Jan. 3.7
There are some key aspects of the new law that advocates should
"Young adults" defined
For the first time, the statute formally defines this
population, adding the term "young adult" as a person between the
ages of 18 and 22.9 This label reflects the goals of
placement for this age group - providing stable living, learning
and working environments as these young people transition into
DCF "shall offer" ongoing services to young
The old regulations instructed that DCF "may elect, on a
case-by-case basis"10 to continue to serve this
population after they reach age 18. Now, DCF "shall offer" ongoing
services to these young adults.
Right to a copy of service plan
Under the new law, every young adult is entitled to a copy of
his or her service plan or case plan. In the case of young adults
and foster youth close to their 18th birthday, this plan is often
referred to as a "permanency plan," indicating that the DCF's goal
is not necessarily to return the young adult to their birth family,
but to provide a plan for a permanent, stable living
Continued jurisdiction of court and right to
Previously, young adults in this population lost the right to
both court oversight and legal representation at their 18th
birthday, even if they maintained a relationship with DCF for four
more years. Now, a young adult who remains in the care of DCF has
the right to annual permanency hearings and a right to counsel.
This change allows young adults to have more equal footing in
negotiations with DCF.
Court-approved transition plans required 90 days before
Either DCF or the young adult may elect to terminate services
prior to the young adult's 22nd birthday. Whenever services end,
DCF must work with the young adult to create a transition plan 90
days prior to the termination date. The same court overseeing the
annual reviews must review and approve the transition plan prior to
Foster care reviews for all young adults
For the first time, this population will also benefit from the
work of the independent foster care review unit within DCF. At
least once every six months, a panel of three persons with no
direct involvement with the case will perform a review of the
status of each young adult in the care of the department.
Since this legislation was enacted, DCF, the Committee for Public
Counsel Services and the Juvenile Court have been busy on
implementation.12 CPCS has developed a training module
for bar advocates in its Child and Family Law program, so that they
can provide the best advocacy possible to this new client
population. The court has issued a new policy guiding the
scheduling and internal record keeping for these
cases.13 Everyone involved in this effort hopes that the
promise of the bill will be realized - that our young adults who
have experienced lengthy stays in foster care will be better
prepared for education, work and life.
1See, e.g., Mark E. Courtney et al., Midwest
Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth:
Outcomes at Ages 23 and 24 (2010), available at
Wilhelmina A. Leigh and Danielle Huff, Aging Out of the Foster Care
System to Adulthood: Findings, Challenges, and Recommendations
(2007), available at
2Della M. Hughes, et al., Preparing Our Kids for
Education, Work, and Life: A Report of the Task Force on Youth
Aging Out of DSS Care (2008), available at
3Prior to the enactment of legislative changes
described in this article, the General Laws permitted, but did not
require, DCF to offer voluntary services to young adults who turned
18 while in the department's custody.
4Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing
Adoptions Act, Pub. L. No. 110-351, §§ 201-202, 122 Stat. 3949
5Id., § 201 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §
6In some instances, changes were made to the General
Laws that go beyond the requirements of federal law, to strengthen
the rights of young adults and conform with best practices.
7Chapter 359 of the Acts of 2010, §§ 9-10, 18-22, 133.
8Chapter 359 has been codified in various sections of
the General Laws: Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 119 §§ 21, 23, 29, 29B, 29C
(2010) and Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 18B §6A.
9This population is distinct from young adults ages
18-22 who are under the care of the department pursuant a
guardianship proceeding under Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 190B §5-305.
10110 C.M.R. § 8.02. This regulation will have to be
amended in order to comply with the new language of Mass. Gen. Laws
ch. 119 § 23(f).
11The court will follow the criteria set out in 42 USC
§ 674(8)(B)(iv) in deciding the sufficiency of such plans.
12As of Jan. 3, 2011, every youth who turns 18 while in
DCF care is eligible for the new law's protections. However, only
some of those young adults who were already receiving voluntary DCF
services on that date will receive the benefit of the law.
Specifically, the law's retroactivity is limited to those young
adults whose cases were eligible for federal reimbursement at the
time they entered foster care. Only about one-third of youth in DCF
care meet this requirement, due to complicated factors beyond the
scope of this article. For more information about this issue, see
Child Welfare League of America, Ten Years of Leaving Foster
Children Behind: The Long Decline in Federal Support for Abused and
Neglected Children (2006), available at www.cwla.org/advocacy/childreninfostercarereport.pdf.
13Juvenile Court Uniform Practice and Procedure
01-2011, Scheduling Permanency Hearings for Young Adults and