Young Leaders Advocate for Ending the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline

“I want to help people that look like me and have experienced what I have experienced. I want to be able to be an advocate for them… If I can reach back and give someone a hand, I definitely want to.” - Yusef Presley, New Deal for Youth Changemaker

By Jacquelyn Sullivan

Since 1988, U.S. presidents and Congress have annually declared May as National Foster Care Month, a time to uplift those working to provide vital services to foster care youth around the country. Beyond extending gratitude toward the individuals and families who support the growth and wellbeing of young people, National Foster Care Month also highlights the many challenges youth in the foster care system experience. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 672,000 children and youth were in the foster care system in 2019. In the same year, one-third of those entering the foster care system were children of color, highlighting the racial disparities in adoption and family reunification. Nearly a quarter of youth in foster care are over the age of 14. When a child becomes too old to remain in foster care at age 18, or in some cases 21, they “age out” of the system and often subsequently lack permanent families, housing, or necessary resources to live on their own. Foster youth who have aged out of the system are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college, and experience higher rates of poverty and food insecurity. Moreover, too many end up getting caught in the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.

Young people across the country have been failed by the United States’ foster care system and are demanding more for themselves and their peers. New Deal for Youth Changemaker Yusef Presley has used his lived experience to highlight the need for increased resources and care for foster youth, particularly foster youth of color. The 24-year-old foster care advocate spent the majority of his childhood in the foster care system, living at over 100 foster homes throughout his life. Foster youth like Presley face many challenges that contribute to long-term negative outcomes. In addition to the frequent lack of stability caused by the unpredictability of housing and available foster families, trauma is their greatest challenge according to Presley. As a Black man in a predominantly white state like Kansas where Presley is a lifelong resident, he experienced even greater racial trauma in the form of isolation and abuse. Transitioning between foster care homes often leads to an increased likelihood of institutionalization, particularly for youth of color, LGBTQ+ identified youth, and youth with mental illnesses.

Foster youth are often subjected to disproportionate discipline and criminalization, pushing many young people, including Presley, into the “foster care-to-prison pipeline”. While the foster care system is meant to provide young people with safe and supportive living situations, many of the system’s deficiencies push youth into the criminal legal system. All too familiar with this pipeline, Presley founded the “YP (or Youth-to-Prison) Project'' to increase awareness about the disparities in foster care that lead many foster youth into systems of carceral punishment. The YP Project connects young people who were failed by the foster care system to resources and advocacy opportunities: “YP stands for me, but it also stands for youth-to-prison, foster care-to-prison… [It’s a national disgrace that] 80 percent of the prison population has been in foster care.” 

In order to end the foster-care-to-prison pipeline and ensure foster youth have sufficient access to the resources and support they need, Yusef Presley and other foster care advocates are calling for communities, state and local organizations, and federal agencies to collaborate in creating effective systems of care for all young people. Too many young people enter the foster care system and either don’t come out or fall into the perpetual punishments of the juvenile justice system. Policymakers should focus on restructuring the current foster care system and investing in the lives of foster youth, as the House and Senate did in their resolutions to support the designation of National Foster Care Month. The connections between foster care and the juvenile justice system run deep. However, foster care advocacy and youth-centered policies can help end the foster-care-to-prison pipeline and promote the sustained safety and wellbeing of young people in the foster care system.