In today’s world, having access to your vital records (birth certificate, Social Security card, state ID card) is, in fact, vital. These records are essential in our day to day lives in a variety of ways including:
- Securing housing
- Applying for health insurance
- Furthering one’s education and getting financial aid
- Interacting with law enforcement
- Procuring public benefits
- Obtaining employment
There is, however, an undocumented population of U.S. citizens among us: system-involved youth. What we mean by this is large numbers of youth leave the child welfare and juvenile justice systems without their vital documents or they are not able to maintain them due to housing instability. Not having these records makes smoothly transitioning to adulthood difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences system-involved youth experience by not having these essential records include potential housing instability, the inability to pursue certain educational opportunities and financial aid, and lack of access to public benefits. Not having identification can also be a barrier to employment. This is the situation Bruce Morgan, Juvenile Law Center’s youth advocate alum, faced.
Bruce, who recently aged out of foster care, struggled to obtain the identification documents necessary to pursue employment. Bruce aged out of foster care before federal law — the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act — required that all youth aging out of the foster care system be provided their vital documents. Bruce was persistent and sought the assistance of the Achieving Independence Center in Philadelphia, which provides aftercare services to foster youth. He obtained his identification documents, but lost them when he became homeless.
Two years ago, Bruce applied for a job with AmeriCorps and realized during the application process that he did have his identification documents. He did not know how to navigate the system and did not have funds to pay any of the fees required to obtain vital documents. Luckily for Bruce, AmeriCorps was willing to work with him and held the position until he could locate his identification. However, for other youth, including many of Bruce’s friends, this flexibility is not always available and job and training opportunities can be lost as youth try to obtain their identification.
While the state of Pennsylvania does require foster youth to receive their vital documents upon discharge, there are many system-involved youth who do not receive these documents or are not able to maintain them when they leave care.
Recently, there have been policies enacted to address securing identification documents for youth in the child welfare system. In Philadelphia, the child welfare agency requires that a caseworker for the private provider agency contracted to serve a youth request a youth’s vital documents at the very moment they enter the system. The agency also requires that youth are provided their identification documents before they leave care at age 18 or older.
According to Bruce, vital records are a lifeline because “everywhere you go you need proof of identity … any job, school or just walking on the street in certain neighborhoods You need a way to identify yourself.” He suggests the following reforms:
- Require that youth be educated about the importance of obtaining vital records before discharge and maintaining records after discharge.
- Provide youth training in how to advocate for themselves in court and case planning so that they can report on the status of their identification and whether they have obtained it.
Identity verification has become a necessary and common part of our daily lives. To participate fully in society, and for youth to have a fair shot at making a life for themselves in the adult world, they must have access to their vital documents. To make this possible, our laws, policies, and most importantly practices, must make this a certainty for young people.