A 2001 review of reports by the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family Program Division underscored disturbing trends: Upon reaching adulthood, youth transitioning from the foster care system are more apt to experience homelessness, more likely to engage in criminal activity, and are incarcerated at higher rates than their peers. This population also tends to face challenges securing employment, emerging from the child welfare system with low levels of education and developmental difficulties stemming from traumatic experiences, loss of loved ones, and other threats to their safety, stability, and well-being. National reports also note that minorities and youth born to families of lower socioeconomic class are overrepresented in the foster care system.
The Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, and Maine's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), responded to these challenges by initiating the Youth Leadership Advisory Team (YLAT). Noting the lack of input from youth in foster care, and motivated by the belief that the intimate understanding of those most affected by the child welfare system can contribute to its reform efforts, YLAT is a youth engagement model which ensures that current and former foster care youth are involved at all levels of the child welfare system.
Informed by the firsthand experience of youth involved in the foster care system, Maine's YLAT boasts a portfolio of achievements. DHHS's 2001 Sibling Placement and Visitation Policy—its first draft was authored by youth in foster care in collaboration with child welfare administrators—is credited to YLAT staff, who responded to the pervasive desire of youth in foster care that they be reconnected with extended family, especially siblings. The articulation of this need also led to the passage of the 2005 Sibling Rights legislation, resulting in court orders upholding the visitation rights of siblings, as well as the establishment of a summer camp that reunites siblings separated by foster care. (Since its initiation in 2004, the camp has served over 200 children involved in the child welfare system.) In addition, college enrollment of youth in foster care has increased due to the successful efforts of YLAT to get the 1999 Foster Care Tuition Waver Law passed.
The YLAT model has proved itself replicable: The State of New York now has a successful foster care youth leadership team, called Youth in Progress, which was developed and implemented with technical assistance from Maine's YLAT staff. This program closely resembles the YLAT approach in its organization structure and effort to create change through the galvanization of youth leaders and through the partnership between adult service providers and youth in care. In addition, the State of Indiana has recently consulted with YLAT staff, a partnership which is resulting in the development of foster care youth engagement activities.