For the vast majority of teenagers turning into adults, turning 21 represents a time of wonder and excitement. This is a time of planning for the future that includes job training, college applications and attendance, and learning practical skills. However, for the more than 400,000 children currently in foster care in the United States, this is not always a time of wonder and excitement, but rather of anxiety and the unknown.
Aging out of the foster care system is not always a seamless process due to the lack of resources that are often available for transition services, however, when child welfare workers use their strong cross-systems collaboration skills, foster care children in transition are often far more prepared to enter the adult world than they would otherwise be.
What is cross-systems collaboration?
Cross-systems collaboration is the process to which professionals partner with other professionals and agencies for the wellbeing of the client. Because many children who enter the foster care system have experienced trauma, may have mental health disorders or behavioral concerns, and often have few skills to utilize, the child welfare workers job is to support the entire person and not just find them housing.
Picture this: a 15 year old boy enters a foster care facility after his mother dies of an overdose. This is a vulnerable time for him that could result in his own substance use, lack of finishing high school, and other negative outcomes because he has no family to support him and is in the middle of terrible grief. His child welfare worker finds him foster housing that meets his needs and allows him to continue attending the same high school he was enrolled in prior to the death of his mother. This welfare worker also helps him access mental health services for processing grief, attend a driver’s education program to get his driver’s license, and apply for grants and funds for college tuition. She did this by supporting him in getting a case manager in the community mental health system, connecting him to an after school tutoring program, and continuously answering his calls and processing through his feelings. She coordinated quarterly meetings with his counselor, school counselor, herself, and him to meet and discuss his needs and progress. They met quarterly for several years until he was prepared to graduate high school and age out of the foster care system, as he was never adopted. In the meetings they discussed the following:
- How he was feeling
- What is going well and not going well
- What his goals were and plans to achieve them
- How his mental health was
He was always able to self-direct the meetings and be his own advocate. This example of strong cross-systems work with providers who were equally as invested in his wellbeing really made the difference for him. Every quarter, he knew he had a team of people who would show up and care for him. He knew that this team would support him, plan with him, and answer any and all questions he had that his mother was no longer around to answer for him.
Why is cross-systems work essential during transition for foster children?
Foster children, not unlike children still living in their biological parents homes, are complex. They have complex needs, desires, and wants. They often have been witness to adversity that is difficult to understand and contextualize. This puts them at risk for a variety of negative outcomes such as substance use, houselessness, and mental illness during foster care and after they transition out.
Cross-systems collaboration supports a trauma-informed approach to care by recognizing those complexities and understanding that no goals can be supported and achieved in isolation. For example, a student with a mental illness will have a difficult time in school. Therefore, their school and counselors should work together to ensure they have the skills and resources needed to be successful. A student with a disability and a trauma history may find coping with their disability difficult because their trauma makes them feel hopeless. Therefore, their direct care provider and their mental health counselor should partner with them to develop a plan for the best way to complete daily tasks.
Cross-systems work believes the following: systems are inherently connected to other systems when they work towards similar goals; systems should focus on the common interest of the youth they are supporting; and agencies must make commitments to partner for the best partnerships to occur. Because of this, any person who is going into child welfare or a system that operates in partnership with child welfare to support foster care children, should be knowledgeable about cross-systems planning and be prepared to partner with other professionals, while also allowing the child to lead the way based on their interests and goals.
All foster care children in transition have the ability to, like this child, graduate and be successful after foster care. To do this, they need to know that they have people supporting them and helping them. This kind of strong support by foster families, child welfare providers, teachers, mental health professionals, and other people supporting them is what will empower them to support themselves. This is how foster care children realize they are worthy of love and belonging: by being shown that to begin with.