MORE ABOUT THE STRATEGY USED IN THIS CASE STUDY Supports to improve outcomes for youth in foster care
In 2013, Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) cut its Young Adult Program, which supported foster youth as they transitioned into adulthood. This left hundreds of Louisiana youth aging out of the foster care system each year without needed supports. Compared to their peers, these young adults had poorer health, educational, and economic outcomes.
To address this issue, young people with lived experience in foster care joined DCFS to champion expansion of foster care in the state legislature. Their advocacy resulted in the State of Louisiana expanding foster care support to serve young adults through age 21. DCFS chose LifeSet as the program model for the expansion of foster care. They partnered with Youth Villages to have DCFS staff trained in the LifeSet program, which provides young people with individualized support as they prepare to transition into adulthood. LifeSet Specialists help young adults develop the skills they need to manage their lives outside of the foster care system, from securing housing and employment to caring for their mental health and maintaining healthy, permanent relationships.
Keys to the program’s success include highly motivated and engaged staff; a youth-centered and strengths-based approach; meaningful and ongoing training and consultation from a LifeSet model expert; access to GuideTree, an online portal that provides specialists with additional guidance when identifying interventions for young people; and strong community partnerships.
Barriers this program faced to success included adapting the LifeSet model for delivery by a government agency, accommodating the high demand for services, adjusting caseworkers to the new approach, and identifying additional supports for participants between the ages of 18 and 21, like treatment for substance use or child care.
Results and accomplishments
As of early 2023, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services has served 139 young adults in the Covington region through the evidence-based Youth Villages LifeSet program model.
In 2022, 71% of LifeSet participants in the Covington region were employed while in the program.
In 2022, 39 percent of LifeSet participants in the Covington region were enrolled in an educational program.
Greater stability for youth aging out of foster care: LifeSet is an intensive, community-based program model that acts as a bridge from foster care to successful adulthood for young people who turn 18 in foster care. Youth who participate in Covington’s LifeSet model show improved outcomes relative to youth who aged out prior to LifeSet’s implementation. Internal data from Youth Villages and the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) show more LifeSet participants finding gainful employment or pursuing post-secondary educational opportunities than their non-participating peers, with significantly fewer youth involved in trafficking cases and none becoming victims of opioid overdose.
DCFS staff trained to provide a new level of support: Introducing LifeSet required caseworkers to be trained in the clinical, intervention-based support that is the basis of the LifeSet model. Staff throughout DCFS are now able to provide individualized therapeutic support to the young people in their charge.
Receiving recognition for its impact: Since its implementation in Louisiana, the Department of Children and Family Services has received wide-spread recognition in local and national media for its support of transition-age young people in the state through the LifeSet program. The program's impact on Louisiana youth has been featured in The Advocate, NPR, and on Good Morning America.
Successful adaptation of national model: DCFS leadership collaborated closely with Youth Villages to integrate LifeSet into Louisiana’s service area as the state extended foster care. Adjusting a nonprofit model of care to fit within a government system was challenging and required flexibility of all involved. The Covington team has been particularly successful at implementing the LifeSet model by utilizing community partnerships, bringing on highly enthusiastic staff, and allowing LifeSet-trained staff to focus exclusively on young people enrolled in LifeSet.
What was the challenge?
Poor outcomes for youth aging out of foster care: Across the State of Louisiana, hundreds of youth age out of the foster care system each year, meaning that they turn 18 without being adopted or reunified with family. Before the extension of foster care, these youth would lose access to the financial and material support they had been receiving from the state before their 18th birthday. Without a stable support network, youth who have aged out of the foster system have low rates of health insurance coverage, secure housing, employment, and educational attainment relative to their peers.
Covington youth face additional pressures: Youth in the Covington region aged out of the foster care system and experienced negative outcomes at rates similar to statewide averages. However, they faced additional challenges living in a rural area. Case workers, already strained by large caseloads, struggled to regularly reach youth spread out over large distances. Additionally, with fewer resources available locally, case workers faced challenges connecting youth with educational and employment opportunities.
Statewide budget cuts eliminated extended foster support program: Prior to 2013, DCFS ran a statewide Young Adult Program (YAP) that provided financial, housing, and case management support to young adults who had aged out of foster care and were pursuing their education. Due to statewide budget cuts, the YAP program was defunded in the summer of 2013. This left foster youth with fewer resources to support their transition into adulthood until state funding for extended foster care services was restored in 2019.
DCFS lacks evidence-based intervention to prepare youth for adulthood: Once legislation to support foster youth through 21 was passed, DCFS sought an intervention model proven to produce better outcomes for foster youth.
What was the solution?
DCFS partners with Youth Villages to bring LifeSet model to LA: Since 2019, the State of Louisiana has partnered with national mental and behavioral health nonprofit Youth Villages to train local providers to implement the LifeSet program statewide. LifeSet is an evidence-based transitional living program that prepares 17-21 year old transition-age youth to support themselves into adulthood. In Louisiana, LifeSet serves as the state’s extended foster care model, and LifeSet specialists meet all state and federal EFC requirements.
LifeSet supports youth transitioning to adulthood: LifeSet specialists meet weekly with youth to provide intensive clinical and material support as they transition out of foster care. Specialists help youth identify their goals and support them in making consistent progress toward achieving them, while also supporting young people in strengthening permanent relationships. Specialists also help connect youth with education, housing, employment, and other resources. This reflects the program’s focus on not only providing services, but on building participants’ capacity to meet their own needs as they prepare to leave foster care.
LifeSet eligibility mirrors federal guidelines: Covington bases their LifeSet eligibility primarily on federal guidelines for extended foster care. This includes a requirement that youth be in school or working for at least 80 hours per month, with an exception for developmentally disabled youth (who are not eligible for the LifeSet program if they are not able to work on goals towards living independently in the community).
Covington is the largest LifeSet region in Louisiana: Since implementation began in 2019, the Covington region, which consists of five parishes around the City of Covington, has grown to be the largest in Louisiana. In 2022, an average of 203 young adults participated in LifeSet each month across the state, with 52 of those doing so in Covington.
What factors drove success?
Highly motivated and engaged team: When building the LifeSet team, DCFS focused on hiring staff that reflected the diversity of the Covington region and that had significant case management experience. Once on board, staff were given ongoing support to increase their effectiveness and enable them to develop clinical skill. Examples of this support include weekly one-on-one meetings with supervisors; group supervision meetings, where staff jointly discuss cases; and access to a Licensed Program Expert, who provides advice on best practices for treatments.
Deep, consistent engagement with Youth Villages: The Covington regional team, and the state as a whole, benefit from a close working relationship with Youth Villages staff. Youth Villages staff meet monthly with DCFS’ LifeSet implementation teams to review outcomes and troubleshoot cases together. This support ensures that LifeSet specialists have the resources they need to support their youth and encourages fidelity to the LifeSet model.
Evidence-based model with decades of refinement: Youth Villages began implementing the LifeSet program in 1999 and has brought the model to 20 states across the country. The LifeSet model has been rigorously researched and refined in the decades since it was established, including a long-term randomized controlled trial conducted by national research firm MDRC, an implementation study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
GuideTree online portal supports specialists with expert case conceptualization and clinical support: The LifeSet model is supported by a robust, online clinical guidance portal called, GuideTree, which is paired with oversight by master’s level, licensed clinicians. The Youth Villages team has spent three decades developing and refining this tool for use in its direct services and by implementation partners. The GuideTree platform guides LifeSet specialists through selecting the most appropriate, evidence-based clinical interventions and tools for each session with a young person.
Community partnerships provide participants with resources: The Covington team has particularly strong ties to the local community, and utilizes relationships with community actors like churches and nonprofits to connect youth with crucial resources, including vehicles, employment opportunities, and community resource drives.
What were the major obstacles?
Integrating nonprofit model into government structure: As a state agency, DCFS operates under a clear, bureaucratic structure that is not inherently designed to accommodate the LifeSet model of service delivery. Adjusting the LifeSet model to the DCFS systems required close collaboration between Youth Villages and DCFS leadership to ensure the program would meet the needs of DCFS while maintaining programmatic integrity.
High volume of youth served: Since launching in 2019, the LifeSet program has grown rapidly, particularly in the Covington region. Since the LifeSet model requires that specialists maintain a maximum caseload of ten, the Covington region has had to hire and train new staff quickly.
Adjustment to intensive clinical model: The current Covington LifeSet specialists were all previously DCFS caseworkers who were trained to implement the LifeSet model. As LifeSet uses a more youth-centered, clinical, intervention-based approach than the traditional model for case management, many of the specialists initially found it difficult to adapt to the new approach.
Building up a new set of resources: As young adults, LifeSet participants are not eligible for many of the resources and programs caseworkers previously recommended to foster care youth due to their age. As a result, DCFS staff needed to develop a new set of resources available to people ages 18 and older.
As a result of statewide budget cuts, DCFS was forced to end their Young Adult Program (YAP), which provided youth who are aging out of foster care and pursuing secondary or post-secondary education with financial, housing, and case management support. At the time of closure, there were 153 youth enrolled in YAP who were then cut off from support services.
The National Youth Transition Database (NYTD), a federal database of information on foster youth, including those who have aged out, reveals high rates of homelessness and low rates of secondary degree attainment, employment, and medical insurance for 19 year olds who aged out of DCFS care. Louisiana outcomes for all measures are similar to or worse than national averages.
A task force composed of statewide experts from across the foster care field, including DCFS administrators, social workers, child advocates, and former foster youth and families is formed to investigate and make recommendations around youth who turn 18 while in foster care. The legislation that establishes this task force is introduced by State Representative Robert Billiot and State Senator Regina Barrow. The task force releases their final report in February of 2017, which includes a recommendation to extend DCFS foster care support through age 21.
The Louisiana State Senate unanimously passes a bill introduced by State Senator Regina Barrow that forms a task force to design a statewide extension of foster care services. The Task Force is composed of representatives from DCFS, the state Department of Health, Department of Education, former foster youth, and youth advocates, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group. The task force releases their final report in February of 2019, which names Youth Villages’ LifeSet program as a key intervention to provide additional support during extended foster care.
Dr. Rhenda Hodnett, the Louisiana DCFS Assistant Secretary of Child Welfare, attends a convening on aging out youth hosted by the national Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. At the convening, Youth Villages’ LifeSet model of extended foster care support is presented as an effective intervention. Dr. Hodnett begins conversations with Youth Villages staff about funding opportunities to bring the program to Louisiana.
In a unanimous vote, the Louisiana State Senate approves a bill introduced by State Senator Ryan Gatti that extends foster care through age 21 or high school graduation, whichever occurs first. This bill ensures that foster youth can continue to pursue their secondary education without a disruption in support services.
With support and guidance from Youth Villages, DCFS successfully applies for and receives a 3-year, $3 million grant from Youth Villages to train regional DCFS staff to implement the LifeSet model.
Statewide DCFS Child Welfare Manager Christy Tate forms a working group to establish what the newly passed extended foster care system will look like, including the LifeSet model of support. State and regional foster care stakeholders are invited to participate, including DCFS state and regional staff, youth services non-profit representatives, Youth Villages staff, and current and former foster youth.
The Covington DCFS team conducts an internal hiring process, identifying a supervisor and four specialists to staff the LifeSet extended foster care model in the region. Once hired, the new LifeSet team receives an intensive two week training from Youth Villages staff beginning with a foundational operations training on the day-to-day logistics of the LifeSet model. The final piece of training covers intensive clinical interventions using real cases to contextualize the material.
At the recommendation of the Task Force on Extending the Age of Foster Care to 21, in a near-unanimous vote, the State Senate approves a bill extending DCFS foster care through age 21 for all foster youth. Later that month, Governor John Bel Edwards signs the bill into law with an anticipated annual cost of roughly $2 million split between state general funds and federal funds.
With staff fully trained in the LifeSet model, the Covington DCFS team begins enrolling foster youth aged 17-21 in LifeSet extended care services. Specialists gradually build up their caseload as they become accustomed to the intensive, weekly model of support.
As state and federal relief funding and programs become available in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DCFS LifeSet specialists continue to connect foster youth with resources they are eligible for, including pandemic unemployment assistance, supplemental SNAP benefits, and more.
As caseloads grow, the Covington region adjusted their team to feature an extended foster care case manager to handle all non-LifeSet foster youth ages 18-21, primarily young adults who had successfully completed the program or who did not meet eligibility criteria. This allows the LifeSet team to focus exclusively on young people enrolled in LifeSet young people. This is unlike other regions in the state, where extended foster care case managers simultaneously support both LifeSet and non-LifeSet service participants.
How did leaders confront the problem?
Louisiana youth who age out of foster care struggle to establish independence: Across the state, youth who turned 18 while in foster care were forced to transition to adulthood without the support network relied on by many non-foster youth. As a result, many struggled to maintain safe and stable housing, employment, access to healthcare, a permanent support system and more. These challenges increased in 2013, when statewide budget cuts eliminated the Young Adult Program (YAP), Louisiana’s only public program supporting individuals aging out of foster care.
Statewide task force explores ways to support youth aging out of care: In the aftermath of cuts to the YAP program, state leaders increasingly recognized the difficulties caused by aging out of foster care. In 2015, State Senator Regina Barrow and State Representative Robert Billiot established a task force to explore the needs of these youth. Two years later, the task force recommended extending foster care eligibility to 21 years of age and offering increased programming to support participants’ transition to adulthood, specifically advocating for the LifeSet program.
Louisiana prepares for extension of foster care services: In 2018, the Louisiana State Senate unanimously passed a bill that formed a task force to design a statewide extension of foster care services. When the task force released their final report in February of 2019, they named Youth Villages’ LifeSet program as a key intervention to provide additional support during extended foster care.
Providing funding to support a foster care extension: In 2018, the Louisiana State Senate approved a bill that extended foster care eligibility through age 21 or high school graduation, whichever occurs first. Building off of this work, the State Senate approved a bill in 2019, which extended DCFS services through age 21 for all foster youth. Later that month, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law.
How was the strategy designed?
Extended Foster Care working group established: In January 2019, a working group was formed to design the structure of extended foster care in the state of Louisiana. This group was composed of state and regional DCFS staff, Youth Villages LifeSet experts, independent living service representatives, state and local youth services non-profits, and current and former foster youth. In addition to establishing the details of the LifeSet implementation, the working group set logistics around the broader extended foster care model, including youth stipends, housing placements, and employment supports.
Setting LifeSet eligibility criteria: The statewide foster care extension allows all youth to receive DCFS support through their 21st birthday, but does not require they all participate in the LifeSet program. Instead, foster youth are offered LifeSet if eligible as they approach their 18th birthday. DCFS leaders worked with Youth Villages experts to set eligibility criteria, based closely on federal guidelines for extended foster care.
DCFS opts to integrate the LifeSet model internally: DCFS leaders collaborated with Youth Villages experts to determine which of the implementation options would fit best within the Louisiana DCFS landscape: partnering with local private providers, contracting with Youth Villages for service provision, or direct implementation by DCFS. Based on DCFS capacity, need, and preferences, the agency decided to build up internal capacity to deliver the LifeSet model in-house.
Internal hiring process selects Covington LifeSet staff: To ensure that all LifeSet staff were well-acquainted with the DCFS systems, all hires were selected from existing DCFS employees. State DCFS Child Welfare Manager Christy Tate, who led the statewide extended foster care effort, oversaw the hiring process in close collaboration with the Covington Area Director to bring on a supervisor and four LifeSet specialists to the Covington DCFS team.
How was the plan implemented?
Educating the foster care community about the LifeSet model: In 2019, Youth Villages Regional Network Director Tim Ashmore and DCFS leadership began meeting with DCFS state and regional staff, family court judges and attorneys, and other members of the foster care community. They aimed to educate and build awareness about the LifeSet model among these stakeholders.
Training DCFS staff in LifeSet model: Youth Villages experts traveled to Louisiana to provide intensive training to DCFS staff about the LifeSet model. The process consisted of one week of training on the wider Youth Villages model and one week of in-depth clinical training.
Building up LifeSet caseloads: All young people being served by DCFS who are approaching 18 years old are invited to participate in LifeSet if eligible for the program. Interested young people are assigned to a DCFS LifeSet specialist. Early on, many referrals were young people who had previously aged out of care and wanted to re-enter care under the LifeSet model.
Thirty-five Covington youth enrolled in the first year: By the Summer of 2019, 35 young people had enrolled in the LifeSet program in Covington.
How was the approach funded?
$3 million Youth Villages grant: The State of Louisiana received a 3-year, $3 million grant from Youth Villages to launch the LifeSet program throughout the state. This funding covered the Youth Villages consultations and trainings needed to stand up the LifeSet model.
State commits $3 million in first year of LifeSet implementation: To implement the LifeSet model in its first year, the state allocated $3 million, pulling equally from the state general budget and federal funds. The state made an ongoing commitment to fund the LifeSet program with approximately $2 million annually.
COVID-19 funding supports housing and transportation: During the COVID-19 pandemic, additional federal pandemic assistance funding became available, which allowed LifeSet staff to support participating youth with housing and transportation costs, such as paying rent and or purchasing a vehicle.
Implementation costs offset with federal IV-E funding: A portion of the enrolled LifeSet youth are eligible for federal IV-E funding, which provide financial support to states through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Federal Foster Care Program. DCFS decided to use a portion of this funding to cover the cost of running the LifeSet program.
How was the approach measured and refined?
Measuring key outcomes at program entry and exit: DCFS tracks baseline and exit outcomes for all youth in extended care, including those in the LifeSet program. These metrics allow the agency to assess the program’s impact on employment, education, housing, permanent connections, and critical incidents.
Consistent collaboration with Youth Villages: The Covington regional team meets weekly with Youth Villages staff to review outcomes and fine tune program delivery, as do all LifeSet teams across the state. Youth Villages staff guide DCFS LifeSet specialists on day-to-day model implementation and lead quarterly clinical booster trainings on key topics, often individualized to a specific region.
Covington hires dedicated employee for non-LifeSet extended youth: In the Summer of 2021, as increasing numbers of Covington youth opt into the extended foster care model, the DCFS team added capacity to manage foster youth 18-21 who were not participating in LifeSet. This separation allows the Covington LifeSet team to focus exclusively on LifeSet youth, whereas in other regions across the state, LifeSet specialists support both LifeSet and non-LifeSet youth.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their support in writing this case study: Tim Ashmore, Jessica Foster, and Connie Mills of Youth Villages and Shannon Catanzaro and Brandy Young of LA DCFS.
This case study was written by Vicki Kidd and Ross Tilchin.