Implementing Welfare Reform Requirements for Teenage Parents: Lessons from Experience in Four States . Implementation Lessons


Arizona, Massachusetts, and Virginia had all been operating under their minor parent living arrangement policies for more than a year at the time of our site visits. Based on discussions with state and local welfare staff in these states, several broad implementation lessons emerged.

A very restrictive living arrangement requirement may create implementation difficulties.

If a state imposes a very restrictive living arrangement requirement, it may encounter local agency opposition and other difficulties. For example, when the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) wrote the original regulations for the state's living arrangement policy, the agency imposed a requirement that minor parents live with a parent if at all possible. Under the original rules, a minor parent living with her grandmother was required to move back in with her mother or father, unless there were strong reasons to suspect that the minor parent would be at risk of physical or emotional abuse. If a minor parent refused to move back in with her parents, her cash assistance case was closed, even if she was living with another adult relative.

According to state-level VDSS staff, local agencies found this policy difficult to enforce. Moreover, they considered it bad policy to force minor parents out of stable living situations with an adult relative to return them to their parent's home. Because of these local concerns, VDSS changed the policy a year after implementing the living arrangement requirement. Under current VDSS policy, a minor parent must live either with her parent or with an adult considered by the local welfare agency to be an appropriate guardian. Since the change in policy, application denials for violation of the policy have dropped from five or six per month statewide under the old policy to one or two per month under the new policy.

Funding group homes may enable states to have fewer exemptions to the requirement.

Having space readily available in teenage parent group homes may make it easier for states to allow only a narrow set of living arrangements for minor parents. For example, Massachusetts allows minor parents to live independently only in very limited circumstances. In early 1997, no unmarried minor parents receiving cash assistance in Massachusetts lived independently. In spite of the state's strict living arrangement policy, Massachusetts has a low rate of case closings for violation of the living arrangement requirement relative to other study states.

Massachusetts' Teen Living Program, which funds group homes for teenage parents throughout the state, allows welfare staff to tell young mothers they can provide a safe alternative if their parental home is not safe. Without this option, program staff might be forced to pursue one of three alternative approaches: (1) allow more minor parents to live independently; (2) accept a broader interpretation of what constitutes an acceptable adult-supervised arrangement; or (3)accept that some minor parents who do not meet the state's requirements will be denied cash assistance. It appears that the Teen Living Program enables Massachusetts to adopt a strict definition of acceptable living arrangements and to allow few exceptions to the policy, without resorting to frequent case closings and application denials.

Group homes offer a safe, structured, and supportive environment.

Group homes, such as those sponsored by the Teen Living Program in Massachusetts, offer substantial advantages for some teenage parents. In Teen Living Program group homes, a program staff member is on-site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide supervision and security, as well as counseling for problems and crises. Residents must attend an education or job training activity for a minimum of 20 hours each week. They must also participate in several hours each week of parenting and life skills training, help with household chores, and abide by curfews and other requirements. Constructive involvement with program staff and peers may help some teenage parents feel much less isolated and alone. Teenage parents who are emotionally immature or who suffer from depression, low self-esteem, or other emotional problems may particularly benefit from the program's structure and support services. For those who come from chaotic and dangerous living situations, group homes provide a safe, stable alternative.

Even when space is readily available, only a small fraction of teenage parents are likely to reside in group homes.

Despite these advantages, only a small fraction of teenage parents may reside in group homes. Since it began operation, the Teen Living Program has continually had the capacity to serve additional teenage parents and their children. Throughout the first half of 1997, the vacancy rate for the group homes throughout Massachusetts remained over 20 percent. Therefore, the program appears to be more than meeting the demand for group homes among teenage parents receiving cash assistance in the state. Even so, less than two percent of teenage parents receiving cash assistance in Massachusetts reside in group homes, including four percent of minor parents and one percent of 18- and 19-year-old parents. The director of one local welfare office serving a large number of teenage parents suggested that these small numbers were evidence that many teenage parents found the program's curfews and its restrictions on visitors and other activities unappealing.

Although costs per resident are high, overall costs of teenage parent group homes may be relatively modest.

The average annual cost of the Teen Living Program's housing and other services is about $45,000 per resident. This relatively high cost is due primarily to the program's high staff-to-client ratio. For example, one group home visited for the study had seven full-time staff members (a program director, four counselors, and two overnight staff) serving eight teenage parents and their families. In spite of high costs per resident, because a very small percentage of teenage parents end up residing in group homes, the overall costs of providing group homes are relatively modest. If Massachusetts's experience is typical, a state can expect to spend only about $800 per teenage parent cash assistance recipient annually to meet the demand among this population for similarly structured group homes. However, if participation rates are higher in other states, their overall costs of providing group homes may also be higher.

Assessing the safety of the parental home will most likely require involvement of child protective services.

When establishing a living arrangement requirement for minor parents, state welfare agencies may need to work with child protective services (CPS) to develop policies and procedures. For example, states may want to consult with CPS officials when determining the specific living arrangements considered acceptable for minor parents receiving cash assistance. Moreover, because local welfare staff may lack the necessary training to assess the safety and appropriateness of a minor parent's living situation, welfare agencies may need to work with CPS to develop procedures for investigating claims by minor parents that their parent's home is unsafe for them or their babies.

The study states varied in how they involved CPS in administering the living arrangement policy. In Arizona and Massachusetts, state policy requires caseworkers to refer all claims by a minor that her parent's home is unsafe to CPS. In Virginia, however, it is up to individual caseworkers to determine whether compliance with the living arrangement requirement threatens the physical or emotional well-being of the minor parent and whether an unrelated adult with whom the minor is living can serve as an appropriate guardian. According to Virginia welfare officials, during the planning phase for the living arrangement requirement, some welfare caseworkers expressed concerns that they did not have adequate training to make determinations concerning the appropriateness of a minor parent's living arrangement. The state agency addressed this concern by allowing local welfare offices to involve CPS social workers in the process if the local offices considered this appropriate.

Monitoring the living arrangements of minor parents is a small burden on staff time because it involves so few cases.

Local welfare staff interviewed for the study consistently reported that monitoring the living arrangements of minor parents was a small burden because so few cases required monitoring. Only one or two percent of cash assistance cases contain a minor parent, most of whom do not head their own cases. Since welfare agencies assume that minor parents on someone else's case are in compliance with the living arrangement requirement (and therefore do not monitor them), welfare agencies monitor only the very small fraction of cases that are headed by a minor parent (0.2 to 0.6 percent of cases in the states we examined).


1. The fourth study state, California, was developing a minor parent living arrangement policy at the time of our visit and planned to implement the policy in mid-1997.

2. A legal guardian is someone who has been granted custody and has been declared responsible for the child by a judge.