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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Aging out of foster care

One of the most perplexing challenges for child protection systems, is what happens to children who age out of the system. This is the point when the child becomes legally an adult and then moves beyond the mandate of the child protection authority. There are many jurisdictions that make some level of support available for some children as they make their way through this transition. Not all children will receive this support.

As I have noted in other posts, the outlook for these individuals is often poor. Research has noted that they tend to not finish high school, have poor employment prospects and records, have higher rates of mental health and substance abuse concerns, greater involvement in the criminal justice systems, early parenthood and more relational problems. Not a rosy picture!

Some soon to be published research by Cunningham and Diversi takes a qualitative look at the aging out experience. It is a valuable addition to the literature. It includes the voices of young people in the transition. Their conclusions also help to inform the debate around what should happen - because clearly we are, as yet, not successful frequently enough with youth who are aging out.

Yes, there are exceptions. Recently, at the very excellent Canadian Society for the Investigation of Child Abuse Conference, I listened to twins, now adults and in university, speak about their journey with the incredible support of a dedicated foster parent. Even so, they spoke of a sibling whose life trajectory has not been so successful. I fear that their story of success is more the exception than the norm.

As an aside, if you have the chance to attend their future conferences, it is an excellent conference - has been for several years.

Returning to the Cunningham and Diversi research, they note in their conclusions:

The youth we spoke with described a transition to adulthood that was immediate and complete, lacking the series of small steps toward autonomy that is common among emerging adults in contemporary societies (Arnett, 2004). Furthermore, the independence experienced by foster youth clashes with research highlighting the brain development which continues into adulthood, and the impact of trauma on emotional regulation and decision-making (Avery and Freundlich, 2009). Youth struggled to meet their basic needs, describing unemployment, hunger, and home- lessness. For the youth interviewed, securing employment held a special signifi- cance as the difference between housing and homelessness. Youths’ experiences of aging out often centered on their preparedness for, or lack of preparation, to secure living wage jobs. The emphasis on employment among the youth we spoke with runs counter to the trend of delayed workforce entry among young adults (Furstenberg et al., 2005).

In other words, our system to move youth to adulthood does not recognize that they may not have achieved the maturational level to handle this without support - something that we see in many families throughout western culture. The age of leaving home appears to be going up as the challenges of moving to adulthood is increasingly complex. Yet, if you are aging out of the foster care system, you are most often expected to handle that transition sooner, with fewer supports and often with significant emotional challenges. Why we would expect these youth to do it differently than most youth is a mystery.

This might be explained by the artificial legal definition of when you become an adult. This can vary from 18 - 21 years of age. But this definition has little to do with real world challenges - it is only a legal definition.

One of the things that we might consider in helping these youth is supporting familial relationships over time. I was struck by this conclusion:

Youth spoke of relationships with siblings, foster family members, and the affirmation that came in some cases from reunification from birth parents. However, most youth experienced high levels of social network disruption, citing frequent moves and the loss of family and home. The loss that youths spoke about most frequently was separation from siblings. Older siblings expressed fear and a sense of responsibility for their younger siblings, even in the face of having to meet basic needs on their own. The lack of contact with siblings is particularly painful considering that most foster youth report closer relationships with their siblings than with parents (Courtney et al., 2007; Reilly, 2003) and sibling relationships are typically the most enduring across the lifespan

How important sustaining these relationships are! This may well make the transitions healthier.

I was also struck by the resistance to help that had been seen in the research sample. It made me wonder how we their personal stories made seeking and accepting support such a challenge:

The self-reliance youth expressed was extreme, with their anxiety about dependence on others evident in statements such as the fear of being ‘shot down’ when asking others for help, or the need to avoid permanent connections to others through adoption or legal guardianship, in order to protect themselves from further loss. The possible reality of being homeless and living on the streets illustrates the extreme anxiety that youth may feel over the transition to independence, and the need for developing autonomy beyond that expected of most youth and young adults in our society. The level of self-reliance expressed by youth interviewed mirrors the ‘survivalist self-reliance’ described by Samuels and Pryce (2008) which illustrates the resilience of youth but also presents a risk, as youth resist relationships with others who might provide support. In particular, the authors noted that youth were especially resistant to seeking emotional support from others.
This work is worth a read as it certainly adds to our understanding of both how challenging this transition is but also how poorly we prepare and support that transition with a population who find the support difficult to get and accept.


Cunningham, M.J. & Diversi, M. (2012). Aging out: Youths' perspectives on foster care and the transition to independence. Qualitative Social Work, on line first. downloaded 2012/05/15 from   doi: 10.1177/1473325012445833

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