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A Tennessee effort to help former foster kids transition smoothly into independent adult lives has gained praise from a national research group.

Early study results cast a positive light on the work being done by Memphis-based Youth Villages, the state's biggest provider of services to "aged-out" former foster children, who experience high rates of unemployment, homelessness and incarceration.

The nonprofit and the Tennessee Department of Children's Services already have been pegged as national leaders for expanding aged-out services.

But the new research — still ongoing — could validate the leap the state took last year. The governor agreed to split a $6 million cost between the state and Youth Villages to extend services to every teen who ages out of foster care, pairing each young adult with a counselor and other help.

Two years in, the study looks at 1,322 young adults who came through foster care or the juvenile justice system. Researchers want to compare the 788 who joined the Youth Villages transitional living program with the 534 who didn't.

Overall, 61 percent were abused or neglected. They enter adulthood at a "great disadvantage to their peers," said researchers with MDRC, the nonpartisan research outfit behind the study.

Researchers found participants got "highly individualized" attention from caseworkers, who typically handle small caseloads of 10 or fewer teens. The agency drew praise for intensive staff training, systematic assessments of how the teens are doing, and for sticking with proven approaches to counseling.

Researchers touted how quickly Youth Villages paired youths with caseworkers. When youths agreed to be helped, 69 percent were put in contact with a caseworker the same day.

After five months, two-thirds of the young adults were still participating, and half stayed involved at least nine months, meeting weekly with caseworkers for counseling and goal planning and receiving help with schooling and job searches, as well as finding connections with adults.

Yet the aged-out youths didn't all get the same amount of help. Resources were limited in rural areas, and more competitive in cities.

The nationally known lead researcher on the study, Mark Courtney, of the University of Chicago, told The Tennessean in 2012 that the study could make the case that the Youth Villages approach should be a national model for transitional living.

In an email to supporters, Youth Villages CEO Pat Lawler said more results are due in 2015.

"The first results of the study give us hope that we are solving this problem and helping our most vulnerable youth find success," he said.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 and on Twitter @tgonzalez.

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