Policy to Support Young People Exiting Child Welfare

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy by Benjamin Strahl, Adrian D. van Breda, Varda Mann-Feder and Wolfgang Schröer. Click here to access the article.

For young people growing up in foster or residential care, in the child welfare system, the transition out of care at around age 18 can be daunting. Until that point, they have received some of the most intensive policy and legislative provisions states offer, since vulnerable children are among the state’s most protected citizens. But once they become adults, this provision often falls away suddenly and completely. Our research across 36 countries shows that most countries provide little support after 18, even when legislation provides for it.

When child welfare – a protective agent of the state – identifies a child who is being abused or neglected or in need of care and protection for some other reason, the response is often to remove the child from that context and place them in care. Most countries have prioritized placement with other members of the child’s family. This is followed by foster care with non-relatives and, only when particularly needed, in residential care or children’s homes. When the state makes the decision that a child’s parents are not able to adequately care for that child and removes the child from their care, the state in effect becomes the child’s parents (in loco parentis).

We argue, along with many scholars, policymakers, and practitioners, that in such cases, the state must deliver on its parental responsibility in the same way that any ‘good-enough’ parent would. Most good-enough parents would not kick their child out of home on their 18th birthday. Nor would they prevent their young adult child from returning home after a time if things didn’t work out for them. These parents would recognize that the transition from childhood to adulthood is not a one-way switch, but a process that can be reversible and extend over months, even years. Some countries use the term ‘corporate parent’ to describe this role applied to the state, as a corporate, co-operative or collective parent to children who grew up under the care of the state.

Our study collected data from key informants in 36 countries, representing all continents except Antarctica, via an online survey. Most of these (89%) reported having legislation that addressed children in care. Three quarters (72%) of these (or 64% of the 36 countries) reported that this legislation was ‘well-developed’ rather than ‘rudimentary’. By contrast, only half the countries (47%) reported having legislation that addressed these children’s transition out of care when reaching adulthood. Of these, only half (47% of these, or 22% of the 36 countries) described this aftercare legislation as ‘well-developed’.

Our findings point to decreasing rates of legislative protection as young people transition from care to young adulthood: the number of countries reporting any legislation drops by about half from legislation for children to legislation for care-leavers, and the rigour of this legislation drops from two thirds for children in care to one half for care-leavers. 

In short, while two thirds of countries have well-developed legislation for children who are placed into care, only one fifth have well-developed legislation for these children after they leave care.

Even within countries that have legislation that makes provision for aftercare to such young people beyond the age of 18, many do not actually implement the provision. Twenty-one of the 36 countries in our study have legislation that allows these young people to remain care up to age 21 and even as old as 27, but only nine of these 21 countries allow this in practice.

The arguable result of this lack of policy provision and (when there is policy) policy implementation in most of the countries in our study is high levels of vulnerability and challenge among young people. This includes unemployment (94% of countries report this as a problem among young people who have left care), lack of education, inadequate housing or poverty (86%), isolation and loneliness (81%), mental illness (75%), and delinquency or substance abuse (61%).

It is noteworthy that we did not find that Global North countries had legislation and implementation and while Global South countries did not. There were several Global North countries without legislation for young people who had aged out of care at the time of the study. These included Austria, Canada, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

This study makes clear that there are major deficits in policy and policy implementation in many countries around the globe regarding young people exiting child welfare care. States are reneging on their responsibility to be the good parent that they have defined children’s parents as not being. We argue that this dissonance in the role of the state – hyper-protective and controlling caregiver before age 18 and negligent absent parent after age 18 – displays a moral deficiency in the state whose policies and programs serve to perpetuate disadvantage. Furthermore, it constitutes a gross social injustice, as the state should follow through on its responsibility to take care of those who are vulnerable, even after they turn 18.

About the authors

Adrian D. van Breda is Professor at University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Varda Mann-Feder is Professor at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Benjamin Strahl is Lecturer and Researcher at University of Hildesheim, Germany


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