On July 1, 2019 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) held a report launch for The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth. There were three panels, including Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, July Diers from the Ford Foundation Stanford undergraduate and publication cover artist Angela Marie Casarez, and Jim Casey Fellow Sixto Cancel. The report’s task was to provide an evidence-based report that examines adolescent development and how it can be applied to institutions and systems so that adolescent well-being can prosper.

Adolescents, young people age 10 to 25, currently comprise nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population. Panelist Joanna Lee Williams from the University of Virginia explained that since adolescents are so adaptable because of their intense brain plasticity, society should support youth. She discussed that while many systems are focused on early intervention for younger children, the adolescent brain’s malleability allows youth to be resilient, and thus, intervention is still beneficial. Therefore, trauma-informed support services are essential for older youth, especially in the child welfare system. According to the report, “the skills gained during adolescence also provide the capacity for other aspects of psychological development” such as identity and a sense of purpose. Williams cited this as a critical reason that adolescents need supportive adults and communities as they find their sense of self.

However, as increases in adolescent support occur, panelists recognized the striking differences in opportunities and outcomes for youth. They cited three mechanisms for disparities: income inequality, institutional and systemic inequality, and personal biases of people who interact with youth. Disparities are part of each system adolescence comes into contact with contributing to inequalities in the conditions and and policy. The report found that poor children develop more chronic illnesses as they get older, Black youth ages 10 to 24 have mortality rates about fifty percent higher than White and Latinx youth, and White and higher-income youth experience better educational achievement than minority and low-income youth. Moreover, LGBTQ adolescents experience worse health outcomes than heterosexual and cisgender youth.

Through a lens of decreasing disparities, the report presented issues and recommendations in four systems: education, health care, child welfare, and criminal justice. The education and the health systems are similar in that access to opportunities and resources are essential to meeting teens were they are and ensuring that all youth are healthy, educated, happy, and safe. These systems must be adolescent friendly and adolescent development trainings for professionals (teachers, administrators, and health care providers) was one key recommendation. Opposite to the health and education systems are the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where disparities are structural and institutional.

The report found that the child welfare system mainly focuses on young children, and disproportionately negatively affects children of color and was never designed for youth. Although Congress has recently enacted legislation to assist adolescents better, there are still significant difficulties that older youth face. Both the child welfare and juvenile systems should focus on family engagement and adolescence need of connectedness and permanency.

The committee made six recommendations regarding child welfare:

• Reduce racial and ethnic disparities in child welfare system involvement.
• Promote broad uptake by the states of federal programs that promote resilience and positive outcomes for adolescents involved in the child welfare system.
• Provide services to adolescents and their families in the child welfare system that are developmentally informed at the individual, program, and system levels.
• Conduct research that includes the full range of adolescents in the child welfare system.
• Foster greater collaboration among the child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and health systems.
• Provide developmentally appropriate services for adolescents who engage in noncriminal misconduct without justice system involvement.

Even with the gaps in the report due to the statement of task constraints, members of the Committee emphasized the need for a narrative shift regarding adolescents. The adolescent years are important for development and there must be radical reform to address these challenges. When someone asked how we accomplish this, Judy Diers stated that we must stop seeing adolescents as risks, but instead view them as agents of change. Moreover, she urged everyone to stop claiming that youth are our future, but acknowledge that they are our present as well as our future. When asked how we make these recommendations a reality, panelists explained that the report was to outline current issues and Judy Diers remarked that the next step hopefully would lead to a translation of these recommendations into a more concrete reality.

To download and read the full report, click here.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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