North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)


Organization Profile: The North Carolina DHHS is the largest agency in state government, responsible for ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of all North Carolinians by providing the human service needs for fragile populations and helping poor North Carolinians achieve economic independence. The department is divided into 30 divisions and offices that fall under four broad service areas—health, human services, administrative, and support functions serving children and youth; families and adults; the elderly; and individuals with chronic illness and disabilities. It also oversees 18 facilities, primarily psychiatric hospitals and drug treatment facilities. DHHS is the home of LINKS, North Carolina’s Foster Care Independence Program.

Program Structure/Design: The overriding goal of LINKS is to build a network of relevant services with foster care youth so that they will have ongoing connections with family, friends, mentors, the community, employers, education, financial assistance, skills training, and other resources to facilitate their transition to adulthood. The project is supported with federally distributed “Chafee funds,” the 1999 Act that focuses on older foster care youth who are planning to transition out of the system.

LINKS is based on the understanding that older youth and young adults who have experienced extended time in foster care are at increased risk of negative consequences once they leave care, such as dropping out of school, unplanned parenthood, high rates of untreated illness, homelessness, criminal activity, depression, and suicide. This program serves youth ages 13 to 21 through county services’ social workers known as LINKS Liaisons. Every county is required to designate one or more persons who will assure the required LINKS services are provided to their county youth and young adults. The program is administered at the state level and measures outcomes of success in these seven areas:

  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall have sufficient economic resources to meet their daily needs.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall have a safe and stable place to live.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall attain academic or vocational/educational goals that are in keeping with the youth’s abilities and interests.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall have a sense of connectedness to persons and community. This means that every youth, upon exiting foster care, should have a personal support network of at least 5 responsible adults who will remain supportive of the young adult over time.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall avoid illegal/high risk behaviors.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall postpone parenthood until financially established and emotionally mature.
  • All youth leaving the foster care system shall have access to physical and mental health services, as well as a means to pay for those services.


ODEP Funded: No
Profile Year: 2009


School-Based Preparatory Experiences: Liaisons work to develop strong working relationships between the county and the public schools to establish in-school mentors and advocates for participating youth. They provide or arrange for academic assistance for youth who are not achieving grade level. This can include educational testing, tutoring, computer-based learning, and vocational interest/ability testing. They also provide exposure to a variety of academic/vocational schools and possible means to attend those schools by arranging financial aid or other supports.

LINKS works to build skill-development activities that are as close to real life as possible (i.e., hands-on activities combined with or instead of classroom lecture, interesting activities that lend themselves to a variety of learning). These activities are related to learning needs identified in assessments and may include activities related to budgeting, housing, career planning, money management, basic home maintenance, health maintenance, avoidance of high risk behaviors, prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, job seeking and job maintenance.

Youth Development and Leadership: LINKS is based on youth development principles with the understanding that adolescents in foster care are engaged in a normal but sometimes chaotic process of youth development. Because of their personal history, many of these youth face additional barriers to achieving positive outcomes, such as a history of abuse or neglect. LINKS programming relies on research that has shown that caring adults can influence positive outcomes for all adolescents and that positive outcomes are much more likely to occur if:

  • Youth are engaged in making the decisions that affect their lives;
  • Youth are recognized and valued for their strengths and the resources they are to themselves;
  • Youth have a variety of opportunities to learn and to try out their new skills in a supportive environment; and
  • Youth have increasing responsibility for themselves for handling issues that confront them.

The agency encourages the youth’s active participation in services and decision making and supports his or her right to self-determination and to make decisions about his or her life using positive youth development principles. In this approach, the LINKS social worker intentionally creates and/or encourages opportunities for youth to experience growth-enhancing interactions with their environment. Rather than treating the youth as an object which has no say in decisions, or as a recipient who needs to be repaired, the agency interacts with the youth as a resource, a person with unique experiences and abilities who can become self-sufficient if given needed information and a supportive environment. To do so, the LINKS social worker serves as a teacher, a coach, and an advocate.

  • Teacher: As a teacher the social worker works with the youth to determine what he or she needs to know in order to proceed toward self-sufficiency. This may mean preparatory training in life skills, driver’s education, work or volunteer experience, money and credit management, etc. As teacher, the social worker is alert to planned and spontaneous opportunities that will encourage positive youth development.
  • Coach: Coaching includes on-the-spot teaching as well as allowing experience to do the teaching and encouraging youth to figure out their own solutions. For example, if youth are given the responsibility for reading a map and following directions for an outing and become lost, the social worker might wait for the youth to figure out what to do rather than rescuing him from the situation.
  • Advocate: As advocate, the social worker not only speaks on behalf of youth but also seeks opportunities for youth to advocate on their own behalf. As advocate, the social worker may work diligently to keep agency staff aware about the program and may challenge the usefulness of outdated existing agency policy that thwarts youth development. An advocate has a critical role in helping the agency to learn about an individual youth’s strengths and abilities, rather than always making decisions that are focused on problems.

Youth are given opportunities to develop a strong reality-based sense of self worth and resilience and decision making, self-care, recreational activities, and confidence-building experiences are encouraged. Programming includes activities that develop skills, talents, spiritual development, positive relationships, recreational interests, and physical and intellectual conditioning. Youth are given opportunities to develop leadership and self-advocacy skills through participation in statewide and national conferences that promote youth development. They can also participate in skill-based programs in conflict resolution, driver’s education, independent living, and financial management.

Connecting Activities: Liaisons serve as an advocate to connect youth to adult service systems including access to physical and mental health services, eligibility determination for Social Security Insurance and Medicaid, and access to public assistance (e.g. TANF, Food Stamps, Work First, Section 8, or other public housing). Youth also receive support related to sexuality, culture and race, juvenile justice, civil rights, and adoption.

North Carolina also requires a Transitional Living Plan for youth who are preparing to age out of foster care including an independent living plan. The plan includes information about

  • the youth’s anticipated living arrangement after discharge, as well as a fully developed alternate discharge plan;
  • the supportive adults who are working with the youth as he/she progresses toward discharge;
  • the specific goals that relate to the youth’s transition to self-sufficiency, including educational and vocational training, the development of a personal support system, building independent living skills, the assurance of safe and secure planned and alternative living arrangements after discharge, and steps toward assuring any other unmet desired outcome; and
  • the agreed-upon steps to be taken to meet the above goals, the youth’s responsibility for aspects of the plan, and the responsibility of the agency and other persons who will assist the youth in accomplishing those steps.



Data: The LINKS program has fundamentally changed North Carolina’s approach to assisting youth that are transitioning from foster care. Prior to 1999, youth in foster care received little or no related county services after they turned 18. No funding was provided for support and state social workers had to make community connections with little opportunity for follow up or to measure outcomes down the road. Many young people, without county support, dropped out of school and/or faced housing, medical, and employment barriers with few options to improve their situation. With the passage of the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act in 1999, funding for programming for older youth led to the LINKS program and increased support for these young people.

This funding has also allowed the LINKS liaisons to partner with the broader community to support a learning and living environment for these older youth, including engaging community partners in mentoring youth in jobs, sponsoring achieving youth, and training youth in groups about subjects such as banking, credit, car purchases, comparison shopping, and other life skill areas. The liaison also meets with liaisons from other counties to consolidate or coordinate services as appropriate. LINKS liaisons have many opportunities to approach the issues of individual youth in creative, flexible activities. This includes the development of partnerships with schools, community organizations, and others to ensure successful outcomes.

The LINKS program is a well-established program that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Each LINKS liaison develops a budget, collects outcome data, and prepares an annual plan for the county LINKS program reflecting successful activities and collaborative relationships. He or she also participates in state level or regional training on a regular basis. The LINKS liaison conducts outreach efforts to all young adults ages 18-21 who aged out of foster care in the county and provide appropriate services to those young adults. The state administrative agency maintains a website and does presentations and training all around the state to keep community partners informed about LINKS programming and procedures, and to hear back from providers and youth themselves about needed services.

Organization Name: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
Organization Director: Joan McAllister
Street Address: NC Division of Social Services, 2401 Mail Service Center
City: Raleigh
State: NC

Contact Person: Joan McAllister
Contact Title: Director
Contact E-mail: