Three Ways that Child Welfare is Failing Older Foster Youth

Sarah Sullivan
10 min readDec 18, 2020


Today, Think Of Us is publishing Aged Out: How We’re Failing Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care. This reflects work we’ve done over the past year to understand how the child welfare system is failing youth aging out of foster care.

Read the full report.

Across the country, far too many young people age out of foster care every year into unacceptable circumstances. Think Of Us (TOU) was founded by Sixto Cancel to dramatically improve the experiences of older youth in foster care and to use the tools of the 21st century to do it.

Since its founding, the TOU team worked tirelessly — right alongside foster youth — to develop technology solutions to foster youths’ most pressing challenges. Together, they designed technology to help set and achieve meaningful goals, create a budget, safely store sensitive documents, coordinate and communicate easily with a range of paid staff and supportive adults, and more.

By 2019, Think Of Us had a broad array of digital solutions and features. It had done a lot of good. And it had lots of lessons learned. But Think of Us was ready to take everything it had learned to the next level. It was ready to go deeper.

I joined the team in the fall of 2019, and we set to work to figure out: What were we missing? How can tech products and tech-enabled interventions help truly transform foster youths’ lives? How could Think Of Us go deeper?

We started where every good technology product should start: user research. We launched a series of intense discovery sprints with five foster care locations across the country where we talked to scores of young people, alumni, and staff. We expected to find insights that would make our products and our site partners better. What we didn’t expect was to uncover gaping holes — big gaps in the ecosystem, that rarely go noticed, let alone addressed.

Think Of Us and our partner locations are using this research now to design our technology and our interventions. But we think this research is too important to keep to ourselves.

That is why, today we are proud to publish Aged Out: How We’re Failing Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care and share our research with the wider ecosystem.

We think we have made discoveries that others can benefit from. We hope that it can help all of us get better at serving those counting on us most.

What We Did

To tackle these questions, we built out a robust team — led by Sixto Cancel, Marina Nitze, and myself at Think Of Us. And we brought on three talented user experience researchers and bureaucracy hackers from Bloom Works — Emily Wright-Moore, Sarah Fathallah, and Lauren Lockwood.

Researchers: Sarah Fathallah, Emily Wright-Moore, Sarah Sullivan, and Sixto Cancel pictured on site in Santa Clara County.

To get the ground truth in different sites, we partnered with five jurisdictions across the country — from New York City to Hennepin County to the San Francisco Bay Area. There, we interviewed a total of 206 people in 92 research sessions. We spoke with foster youth, alumni, staff of all kinds, and supportive adults. We documented the process that young people go through during the experience of aging out of care. We facilitated design workshops with young people. We asked them to draw a map of the people in their life, to list out their dream and concerns for aging out of care, to imagine and design (on paper) the kinds of technology they would want to have as they transitioned out of care.

What We Found

With each discovery sprint, the team met to synthesize what we had just learned. Our goal was to find opportunities to improve our products and our site partners. As we did that, a deeper story of what was missing across sites — what was missing across the ecosystem — began to emerge.

TOU Board Member Megan Smith is pictured during synthesis with researchers Sarah Sullivan and Sixto Cancel.

When we picked our heads up, we realized there are three gaps in the ecosystem — three Opportunity Areas — that we were missing:

  • Healing and Dealing with Trauma
  • Centering Youth in their Preparedness
  • Helping Youth Build a Supportive Network

We think there’s lots to know and say about each of these. We’re still learning ourselves. But we’re going to share some of our biggest insights on each.

Healing and Dealing with Trauma

Read the full chapter on Healing and dealing with trauma.

We now believe that trauma is the elephant in the room for child welfare. It is the unspoken issue, the missing link that child welfare is failing to address for all of its youth, and for transition-age youth in particular.

This message came through loud and clear on the first morning, of our first day, at our first site.

When our research team walked into a foster youth drop-in center in Santa Clara County, we encountered a Día de los Muertos altar in the lobby, and learned how staff had developed their own beautiful grief ritual for youth. Some years ago, staff at the drop-in center realized there was no meaningful way for youth to mourn the loss of a former foster youth who had recently passed away. Wanting a ritual to address this loss and recognizing that 70% of foster youth in the county are Hispanic, one staff member had the idea to create a Día de los Muertos ceremony.

That first year, she created an altar in line with the Día de los Muertos tradition and invited foster youth to put a flower on the altar in memory of the youth who had passed. Interestingly, the foster youth quickly claimed ownership of the ceremony, and used it as an opportunity to also acknowledge the various other traumas in their lives, specifically the people in their lives who had passed: biological parents, extended family, foster parents, siblings, friends, and more.

Now, this special Día de los Muertos tradition has become an annual event, including an opening and closing ceremony led by a local grief counselor. The altar stays up for two weeks. This story was the first indication to our research team that there is a tremendous amount of trauma, loss, and grief that foster youth experience, and no system-wide practices to address it.

Everyone knows that trauma impacts the entire foster youth population. Many youth enter care because of the traumas of loss, abuse, or neglect. And all experience the trauma of being removed from their home. While there is wide acceptance amongst staff about this, there is little collective understanding within the foster care system of what will most help foster youth heal their trauma, or even acknowledge that healing is possible.

Key Insights

  • The system lacks a shared vocabulary to address the grief and loss that foster youth experience. How do you say: “I’m sorry you got removed from your family and don’t know if you will ever go home?”
  • Emotional needs and healing are often more pressing and urgent than other needs. The system thinks housing, education, and employment are urgent needs. They are! But for some, it’s even more pressing to feel loved, to have a close relationship, to feel well, and to feel whole.
  • Foster youth are not presented with a path to healing, including the many pathways they could take to improve emotional well-being. Though all foster youth have experienced trauma, we’re not showing them the path to heal themselves of it.

Centering Youth in their Preparedness

Read the full chapter on Centering Youth in their Preparedness.

For transition-age foster youth, the child welfare system spends a lot of its calories trying to help youth achieve “preparedness” so that they are ready for life on the other side. Yet, much of this well-intentioned effort gets literally lost in transition for foster youth.

At one site, we talked with staff about how they prepare youth for the end of extended foster care at age 21. We also spoke with the young people about this same transition. Both staff and youth understood that extended care ends at 21. However, when we probed further, the research team discovered that several young people believed that foster care lasted through age 21 (the end of 21) as opposed to until age 21 (the end of 20).

Staff and youth would talk to each other about care ending at 21. While they believed they were on the same page, they actually perceived a transition date that was an entire year apart. This highlights how important it is that staff use language that is defined by and understood by youth.

This is symbolic of the larger idea: Preparedness is defined by the system. Preparedness is defined for youth, not by youth.

Key Insights

  • Youths’ most urgent needs are not always the system’s most urgent need. For a youth about to transition out of care, the most important thing in their life might be exploring their gender expression, having a girlfriend for the first time, or navigating a move back home with a bio parent after care. The system has different goals.
  • Programs are not designed for youth to learn by failing safely. Adolescence is all about making mistakes and growing from them. Foster care doesn’t support this natural part of human development. Instead, failing or “bad behavior” can be met with a move to a different foster family or worse.
  • Foster youth do not have many opportunities to practice forming a vision for their futures that they are excited about. Because the system is so focused on survival, it doesn’t always help youth imagine how they could thrive.

Helping Youth Build an Supportive Network

Read the full chapter on Helping Youth Build an Supportive Network.

A central myth of child welfare is: Youth don’t have supportive people in their lives who are outside of the system. The truth is that youth do have supportive people in their lives. Staff just don’t know about these people for a bunch of reasons.

A staff told us an unfortunate story about a time when one of her foster youth passed away. She knew this youth didn’t have a lot of people in their life. So, she attended their funeral, expecting not to see many other people in attendance. But, when she went to the funeral, there were lots of people there, including many adults and some adult family members. She was surprised and wondered why she didn’t know about all these people before, and why they were not around to support the youth when the youth was alive. Perhaps, she realized, they were there all along, and staff were unaware.

We discovered that youth protect their relationships from staff for a number of good reasons: including because they are in communication with people they are not supposed to be (like bio parents) and they feel that exposing relationships to the system would be bad for the relationship. The system doesn’t help either because it almost never asks about or meaningfully engages the youths’ natural supporters.

The system’s lack of understanding of youths’ supportive relationships is a problem since all youth need strong, supportive relationships. And this is especially true for foster youth who will age out of care and be left on their own. If the system worked to support — rather than breakdown — youths’ supportive relationships, foster youth would have a stronger group of people to catch them on the other side of care.

Key Insights

  • Youth want to protect their relationships. They don’t want to expose them to the system for fear of losing them. Foster youth have had many important relationships in their life become fractured, like relationships with bio parents, foster parents, and social workers. If they have a relationship that is going well, they don’t want to risk losing it.
  • Identifying adult relationships is seen by staff as important but not prioritized. Many staff know that engaging youth’s supportive people is important for the youth’s success. But it’s not prioritized. And staff are too overworked to get to things that aren’t prioritized.
  • The system only pursues relationships that might lead to permanency or placement. Different supportive people can play lots of roles in a foster youth’s life. Someone could teach them to drive, someone could help them get a job, another could listen and help them feel seen. All of these people play an important role. Because the system generally only develops relationships when someone will house the child, many of these other meaningful relationships atrophy.

What’s Next

Think Of Us is incorporating these findings into everything we do. We are taking the Recommendations and using them to design child welfare systems that help youth heal, prepare on their terms, and develop strong relationships. And we’re using them to inform our technology products.

To those in child welfare or anyone interested in how we can better serve foster youth, this report is our gift to you. Check it out, think about how you might incorporate this into your work, and let me know what you think at

Ready to Learn More?



Sarah Sullivan

Mostly interested in healing of all kinds. Formerly: NDP, @USDigitalService, and Obama White House.