Survey Gives Glimpse into Transition from Foster Care to Independence

Foster youth approach the age of 18 with serious health and socioeconomic risk factors, but do so with optimism and a sense of support, according to the baseline findings from a five-year study on California youths released late last week.

Researchers will continue to track the participants into young adulthood in an attempt to measure how much they are assisted by California’s recent extension of foster care until age 21.

The results of “Conditions of Foster Youth at Age 17” suggest serious academic challenges for older teens in foster care. More than half (53.6 percent) report getting mostly C’s or D’s in school. One-third said they had stopped attending high school or junior high school because of a foster care placement change, and 27 percent reported having been expelled from school.

Two-fifths of the survey participants reported having been arrested, and one quarter have been confined in some punitive facility in connection with the commission of a crime.

Another risk factor for young people – teen pregnancy – was experienced by females in the survey at more than twice the overall rate for adolescents. Twenty-six percent of females in the survey said they had been pregnant at least once, compared with 10 percent of youth who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as the Add Health Survey).

Female participants in the survey reported more mental health challenges than male participants. Nearly 12 percent of all the participants identified themselves as in “fair or poor health,” compared with about 6 percent of Add Health respondents.

Still, most foster youth report having at least some support and optimism about their future. Ninety-two percent said they have “at least one adult they can turn to for emotional support,” and 70 percent said their foster parent had been helpful. Sixty percent of youths said they were “very optimistic” about their future, and another 30 percent said they were “fairly optimistic.”

The study is the first part of the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study, a collaborative effort among the California Department of Social Services, the County Welfare Directors Association of California, and five private foundations.

In 2010, the state passed Assembly Bill 12, which offers foster youths the option to remain in care until age 21. The bill guarantees transition-oriented options for older youths, including supervised independent living and more intensive transitional housing programs.

Chapin Hall, the Chicago-based research group that conducted the survey, received completed surveys from 95 percent of the 727 eligible youth, all of whom had been in care for at least six months and were between the ages of 16 years, nine months and 17 years, nine months.

Researchers will re-interview the participants when they are between the ages of 19 and 21, years in which California now offers foster youths the chance to remain in care. Two-thirds of the survey participants indicated that they wanted to remain in care after age 18.

“In the next three years, the study will take a deeper look into the needs of subgroups of youth and will also compare young people’s and caseworker’s perspectives,” said Dr. Mark Courtney, who is leading this research for Chapin Hall, in a statement issued with the release of the survey. “This work will offer important guidance to California as well as other states that are extending foster care.”

John Kelly is the editor of The Imprint.

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