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Exploring the Tension Between Independence and Interdependence among Former Youth in Foster Care who are Emerging Adults



A long-standing belief in the value of independence has led to an emphasis on self-sufficiency in our programming, policy, and practice responses toward youth aging out of the foster care system— an ideal that often is difficult for young people to achieve. However, a growing body of research on interdependence suggests that healthy connections to trusted adults may better help youth navigate the transition to adulthood. Semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 youth explored conceptualizations of independence in the context of emancipation. Using thematic content analysis, themes indicate contradictory and deterministic ideas about self-sufficiency and adulthood. Findings imply tensions between independence and a developmentally normative need for interdependence during the period of emerging adulthood.
‘Not Independent Enough’: Exploring
the Tension Between Independence and
Interdependence among Former Youth
in Foster Care who are Emerging Adults
A long-standing belief in the value
of independence has led to an
emphasis on self-suciency in our
programming, policy, and practice
responses toward youth aging
out of the foster care system—
an ideal that often is dicult for
young people to achieve. How-
ever, a growing body of research
on interdependence suggests that
healthy connections to trusted
adults may better help youth navigate the transition to adulthood.
Semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 youth explored con-
ceptualizations of independence in the context of emancipation.
Using thematic content analysis, themes indicate contradictory
and deterministic ideas about self-suciency and adulthood. Find-
ings imply tensions between independence and a developmentally
normative need for interdependence during the period of emerging
Kim Hokanson
Boston College School of Social Work
Kate E. Golden
Rutgers University
School of Social Work
Erin Singer
JSI Research & Training Institute,
Stephanie Cosner Berzin
Simmons University
Copyright © 2020 CWLA.
For reprints or reproductions, contact Marlene Saulsbury, publications director, at
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
Approximately 20,000 young adults age out of U.S. foster care
annually (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
[DHHS], 2018), prepared to varying degrees for the future that lies
ahead of them. Despite the fact that many states have allowed for
extended foster care past the age of 18, many youth still end their formal
relationships with public child welfare agencies before they are required
to do so. Terminating this connection means that youth essentially leave
money and support “on the table” (Goodkind, Schelbe, & Shook, 2011).
e literature suggests a variety of reasons for these departures. Youth
may feel constrained by these systems, a need to isolate themselves to
“survive,” and/or a desire to be completely independent and navigate
the world without outside help (Samuels & Pryce, 2008).
Young adults formerly in foster care often have noted that the con-
straints of the system limited their sense of autonomy and indepen-
dence (Goodkind, Schelbe, & Shook, 2011). In their mixed-methods
study of over 400 youth leaving care, McCoy, McMillen, and Spitznagel
(2008) found that the majority of youth who wanted to leave care left
due to frustration with the system (39%) and/or a desire for inde-
pendence (28%). In a work aptly entitled “Try to make it seem like
we’re regular kids,” youth reported that curfews and other rules felt
age-inappropriate and inhibitive of growth (Rauktis, Fusco, Cahalane,
Bennett, & Reinhart, 2011). Similarly, researchers speaking directly
with youth formerly in care found evidence that youth believed deci-
sions were made for them and little emphasis was put on helping them
ramp up their own decision-making abilities. In their study involving
33 youth currently and formerly in care, Scannapieco, Connell-Carrick,
and Painter (2007) reported that youth felt uninvolved in decisions
about their own lives while in care, noting instances of case planning
with minimal youth input, for example. Geenen and Powers (2007)
identied a similar result from the 27 youth currently or formerly in
care that they interviewed; the youth said that decisions were often
made for and not with them, and that they had few opportunities to
practice self-determination skills while in care.
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
Research has also found that youth struggle with attending to their
own needs and goals. Rather than allow themselves to become dis-
tracted by the concerns of those around them, they sometimes practice
“self-focus,” a form of social distancing described in the emerging adult
literature (Arnett, 2000). For youth formerly in foster care, however,
distancing from already sparse and fragile relationships may be less
about growing into healthy adulthood and more related to expressing
rigid individualism or self-defense. For some, maintaining or widen-
ing interpersonal distance may reect distrust associated with broken
relationships inherent to the foster care experience (Unrau, Seita, &
Putney, 2008).
Youth formerly in foster care often discuss feeling internal and
external pressure to attain total independence. Colloquially described
as not needing help from anyone, this is sometimes referred to as “vigi-
lant self-reliance” or “survivalist self-reliance” (Samuels & Pryce, 2008).
is may be an artifact of experiencing continual disappointments by
adults or needing to assume adult responsibilities during formative
developmental stages, a life experience not typical of their peers who
have not been in foster care (Morton, 2017). While this may be a source
of resilience for youth with fewer supports, it may also be maladap-
tive as necessary human connections are pushed aside in the name of
independence. Some literature, however, indicates that youth formerly
in foster care identify potential benets related to interdependence (as
opposed to independence) relative to strengthening an interpersonal
safety net (Scannapieco, Connell-Carrick, & Painter, 2007).
Indeed, there are increasing calls for shifting from a goal of total inde-
pendence at age 18 to embracing interdependence (Propp, Ortega, &
NewHeart, 2003). Despite messages that achieving self-suciency is
indicative of success, youth who do so via independent living, employ-
ment, bill paying, and more may report feeling lonely and disconnected
(Propp et al., 2003). More concerning, they may self-identify as failures
when they do ask for help of any kind. Interdependence honors a need
for, and supports engagement with, trusted adults (Samuels, 2009).
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
is normative developmental stage has particular benets for youth
in foster care by positively impacting psychological well-being, rela-
tionships, and orientation toward the future (Spencer, Drew, Gowdy, &
Horn, 2018). Interdependence is increasingly held as a preferable goal
because it emphasizes connection. is is both normative and integral
as “no one is truly independent or self-sucient (Propp et al., 2003,
p. 265). Proponents of this ideology note that all youth, whether they
experienced foster care or not, need the ongoing support of friends, fam-
ily, and community. To argue for total independence is to push for less
connectedness; to attain interdependence, our ideology means a shift
from self-suciency to self-ecacy. In this way, youth are supported in
developing the knowledge and skills to identify what is needed to meet
their goals and to develop the resolve to complete those steps.
Relationship to Previous Studies
e current work ts into a small but growing body of research directly
asking for youth perceptions of how they navigate emerging adulthood
while still involved with public child welfare systems (Cunningham &
Diversi, 2013). e data used for this article were also used in three
studies exploring how formal and informal relationships impacted the
lives of youth in care as they transitioned into early adulthood. One
evaluated the quality and utilization of supportive relationships and
found that unrealistic expectations colored their framing of formal and
informal supports (Singer, Berzin, & Hokanson, 2013). Another exam-
ined the association between formal support systems and resilience by
highlighting the systematic components of the resilience process and
found that public child welfare worker relationships were especially
meaningful (Hokanson, Neville, Teixeira, Berzin, & Singer, 2020).
A third article, which inspired the current study’s narrowed focus on
independence, explored emerging adulthood. Using Arnett’s (2000)
characteristics of emerging adulthood framework, it found a need to
reevaluate what appeared to be contradictory denitions of adulthood
and reliance (Berzin, Singer, & Hokanson, 2014). e current article
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
answers this call by explicating how these young adults conceptualize
independence by examining support, self-suciency, self-ecacy, self-
focus, and adulthood.
is study seeks to understand how youth conceptualize indepen-
dence and self-suciency in the context of emancipation from state
care. It also seeks to explore how reliance and subsequently, interdepen-
dence, is perceived among this sample of youth.
As part of a larger study on emerging adulthood, semi-structured inter-
views were conducted with 20 youth. About half had emancipated from
care at the time of interview while the other half were nearing the point
of emancipation but were still in state care. Targeted on-site recruit-
ment was used to purposely sample two groups of ten participants from
two community-based settings serving youth transitioning from state
care. Participants self-selected into the study. A $20 gift card incentive
was provided. Interviews were conducted by trained research assistants
and lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. Interviews were recorded and
transcribed verbatim. More information about the sample selection
process, organizational context, and data collection procedures used is
available in previously published articles (Singer, Berzin, & Hokanson,
2013; Berzin, Singer, & Hokanson, 2014). Study approval was granted
by Boston College’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).
e interview protocol relevant to this analysis focused primarily on
participant conceptualizations of adulthood, self-suciency, self-focus,
and social support. Open ended questions (e.g., “What makes you an
adult?” and “Do you feel like you’re self-sucient?”) and quantitative
estimates of the relative importance of indicators of adulthood (e.g.,
nancial independence, age, romantic partnering, educational attain-
ment, career stability, housing stability, etc.) generated dialogue about
constructs related to independence and reliance.
Transcripts were uploaded to Dedoose (version 8.0.35) and analyzed
using thematic content analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006), sensitizing
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
concepts, and constant comparative methods. ematic content analy-
sis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was selected to identify, analyze, and report
patterns related to independence because it can support deductive-
inductive inquiry across and within respondents. Sensitizing concepts
(Padgett, 1998) act as a reference point and interpretive device pro-
moting a deeper, inductive analysis of concepts of interest, in this case,
independence and reliance. is allowed the research team to focus its
inquiry on ideas related to independence and reliance identied, but
not comprehensively explored, during previous iterations of analysis.
Following Braun and Clarke’s (2006) analytic steps in conjunction
with the use of sensitizing concepts, the team rst applied a broad
operational denition of “independence” and “reliance,” which encom-
passed constructs of social support, self-suciency, self-focus, decision-
making, and adulthood, to broadly code across the data corpus. Two
research team members then used open coding methods separately to
explore the nature and extent of these constructs within that selection.
Using constant comparative methods including memoing and code-
comparison, the team operationalized and rened agreed-upon codes.
ese were then applied to a random selection of 25% of transcripts
(n = 5) and checked for consistency. Disagreements in coding deni-
tions and application were resolved through consensus. A nal selection
of codes identied from this process were tested against the data corpus
to assess their representativeness among these participants. In addition
to constant comparison and memoing, researcher triangulation contrib-
uted to credibility by engaging a researcher (the second author) to lead
the analytic process who had minimal knowledge of the original study.
Sample Characteristics
Participants were 18 to 21 years old and had been in care an aver-
age of about nine years (x
= 9.47 years, range: 1.5 to 19 years) with
the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
About half of participants (53%) had emancipated from state care.
About half had experienced more than six placements while in care
(47%). Participants were racially and ethnically diverse, with 11% iden-
tifying as White, 47% as Black, 16% as Hispanic, 21% as multi-racial,
and 5% as another race. Over half were enrolled in college (58%), some
were in high school (16%), and others had less than or equal to a high
school diploma/General Educational Development (GED) (21%). is
sample’s mean level of education is higher than that of the broader
population of youth formerly in foster care.
Respondent narratives revealed a continuum of ideas around how
one is or “should” be independent and associated rationales for such
beliefs. emes describing this include: (1) Perceived constraints of state
care often limit self-ecacy; (2) Isolationism as a preparatory strategy
for adulthood; and (3) Degrees of reluctance with interdependence.
Perceived Constraints of State Care Often Limit Self-ecacy
When reecting on being in state care, youth often discussed how the
regulatory nature of foster care had eects on how they could express
their independence. One youth explained that if he were to vacation
in Florida, he was at risk of DCF terminating his contract with them.
e need to follow the agency’s rules reduced ownership over his own
decision-making. He said, “there’s a lot of things I want to be doing
right now, much … there’s a lot of things I could be doing right now
than staying shut up in this … in DCF custody, not being able to go
wherever I want, like, in DCF I can’t go anywhere without their per-
mission” (Participant 107, male, age 21). Dealing with curfews despite
being over 18 and negotiating the school/work requirement of DCF
benet receipt were described as particularly restrictive. One partici-
pant (Participant 102, male, age 20) described how the agency refused
to compromise with him over his access to his Supplemental Security
Income (SSI). Unable to come to an agreement, he was forced to reckon
with the choice to sacrice this income to stay in care. Being able to
engage in the world without the connes of agency requirements
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
increased a sense of ownership over decision-making. Another par-
ticipant explained that she felt, like I belong to the world and I feel
more comfortable” when out of agency immediate control and could
“make my own decisions” and “be responsible for any consequences that
I would take” (Participant 117, female, age 21).
Most youth explained that aside from the regulatory nature of state
care, a general eect of membership in public child welfare meant a
reduced ability to navigate the world without support. For example,
one respondent explained how a particularly restrictive background
check requirement (i.e., Criminal Oender Record Identication or
CORI) necessary for the intensive foster care program she was a part of
had repercussions for managing her sense of independence. “I couldn’t
get in the car with anybody if they weren’t CORId, I couldn’t go to any-
one’s house if they weren’t CORId … I didn’t have any freedom … at
is why it is so hard though to have all this freedom now” (Participant
120, female, age 18).
Some narratives suggested that state care engagement contributed
to youth feeling more like children than adults. For these youth, DCF’s
continued presence in their lives reduced their ability to claim self-
suciency: “I mean, technically I’m an adult, so I am pretty much on
my own, but the fact that I’m still in it, I feel like I haven’t really aged
out of it until, like, I’m ocially on my own … Just like you were as a
kid. And then, it just stays that way” (Participant 113, female, age 19).
Another explained feeling caught between being an adult and child,
stating that she was, “an adult, but at the same time, I am being watched”
(Participant 120, female, age 18). Unable to make her own decisions,
she described herself as feeling “stuck.”
Notably, some youth perceived that DCF had the opposite eect
and actually facilitated their ability to be independent or self-reliant.
For example, Participant 109 (female, age 19) explained that, “DCF also
helps you make choices”—a stark contrast to her formative years when
she felt there was no choice “at all.” A few youth highlighted DCF’s
nancial support as a way not only of providing education funding but as
granting them the ability to live independently on campus. For example,
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
a participant explained, “thanks to DCF, I actually can actually pay for
[college] and stay there” (Participant 113, female, age 19).
Isolationism as a Preparatory Strategy for Adulthood
Adulthood was framed as an inherently isolating phase of life in which
“doing things on your own, not having to depend on everybody else”
(Participant 111, female, age 19) was perceived as necessary for achiev-
ing complete self-suciency—often an overarching goal of these
youth. Many described how the experiences that felt most “adult”
involved an intentional distancing between themselves and the factors
that they perceived as distracting them from progressing forward with
their future endeavors. For some, this meant reducing social and even
emotional engagement with friends or family. Participant 110 (female,
age 19) explained that she had “been so worried about other people
I’m just worrying about myself as the rationale for focusing on herself.
Typically, practicing isolationism was framed as a dicult but impor-
tant part of improving their ability to be self-reliant by getting their
own place, making their “own rules,” and taking “care of [themselves].”
One youth explained that in the past he would “always care what others
would do with their lives and help them out” but felt that this was at
the expense of his own abilities to achieve his own goals (Participant
106, male, age 18). So now, he attends to his own needs rst. Participant
113 (female, age 19) summarized this, “I even have some friends, like,
get mad ‘cause I’m not with them all the time, but, like, I put myself
rst and, I don’t know if that kind of sounds selsh or not, but, it’s like,
I have to better myself before I can help anybody else. at’s just the
way I see it.” Another said, “before I used to not really care what hap-
pened to me, but make sure everyone else is ne. But now that I get the
time to really think about, okay, what do I really need for myself, what’s
gonna help me in order for me to be stable and then to help someone
else” (Participant 102, male, age 20). is desire for future stability was
what motivated him to move forward with getting a job and apartment
in addition to attending school.
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
A fully independent lifestyle was sometimes discussed as being
at the expense of adaptive choices. e need to be independent was
sometimes associated with risk in other domains. A few respondents
indicated that their attempts to self-isolate may have had somewhat
problematic consequences, although they did not seem to frame the
eects of their choices in a negative light. Participant 111 (female,
age 19) explained how she failed a college course because she was also
attempting to work a part-time job because she was, “only thinking
about, like, making money, honestly.” Navigating two tasks, school and
work, that both promote self-suciency proved challenging. She just
“didn’t want to ask for help because she felt she “had” to do it herself.
Participant 102 (male, age 20) had been homeless for two years, living
on friends’ couches but expressed pride that he “knew the value of living
on [his] own and being able to fend for [him]self.” Another participant
said that “when it comes to whatever I have to do, I make sure I get it
done, even if I’m stressed out and stu” or when she felt like “giving up”
(Participant 112, female, age 20).
Degrees of Reluctance with Interdependence
Reluctance to ask for support was noted across a majority of respondents
although their rationales and the context of the statements diered.
Many seemed to feel that asking for help was not appropriate given
their age, “Like, sometimes I sit and think, oh, maybe I should ask my
social worker. But then I’m like, hold on, I am 20, I am in college, I can
take basic care of myself (Participant 116, female, age 20). Another
explained that when she “grows up, she does not “always want to rely
on someone” (Participant 120, female, age 18).
Other responses emphasized underlying beliefs that they “should”
be independent, because self-reliance is a marker of success whereas
asking for help might be viewed as a decit. is framing was the most
common, suggesting that most participants’ reticence with asking for
help may speak to a common ideology of adulthood where manag-
ing “without outside help” (Participant 114, female, age 19) was the
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
standard for which to strive. Participant 117 (female, age 21) explained,
“Yeah. I still see myself as not independent enough, because the only
time that I will see myself as independent is the time that I will pay my
own school bill, and I am not going to ask for scholarship. at is the
only time that I will see myself as independent enough, because now I
still rely on other people for money.” Another explained her reticence
with the idea of asking for help by stating, “If you’re an adult, you’re not
gonna get a check from DSS giving you money to pay for your rent”
(Participant 109, female, age 18).
A desire to avoid asking for help was sometimes described as the
result of family experiences or shared family values e.g., “that’s how I
was raised” (Participant 106, male, age 18). While a few respondents
indicated that their home experiences taught them the importance of
not having to rely on others, another explained how a previous foster
placement made her more comfortable asking for support. Participant
117 (female, age 21) described how living in a setting where pessimism
and negativity was normative contrasted with supportive relation-
ships found at church which taught her how to feel “more comfortable,
like there was somebody there, whenever I need help, I can go talk to
that person.”
Others believed that seeking out help was not inherently maligned
with independence. Narratives suggest it was perhaps rarely accessed,
but acknowledged and sometimes used: “if I need a little bit of help,
then I’ll go to DCF, but most of the time I do things on my own”
(Participant 103, female, age 18). And a few even framed asking for
support as a strength consonant with being independent, rather than
a detriment denoting an inability to succeed as an adult, “I go to my
support systems a lot and am like, okay, what would you do, and I
need you to play the devil’s advocate, but at the end, even though I
know what they feel or what they would do, I still make my own deci-
sion. But, it’s good to have, you know, what would you do, or what
do you think” (Participant 119, female, age 20). Another explained,
“I guess ultimately I make the decisions. But I have a lot of inuence
from, like, [social worker]. And, like, family. And, like, friends that
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
really care. I’m not talking about, like, friends at school. I’m talking
about older friends that … actually care about, like, my future. Like, I
have advice from them and stu” (Participant 115, male, age 20). In
this way, he was able to be “a functioning adult, responsible and stu
because adulthood was about “taking those opportunities and doing
something with it.”
e current work seeks to understand how youth conceptualize inde-
pendence and self-suciency in the context of emancipation from
state care as well as to explore how reliance (and subsequently inter-
dependence) is perceived among this sample. In so doing, this work
adds to a growing body of research in which youth voices are directly
heard, and it resonates with themes that appear in existing literature
(Cunningham & Diversi, 2013).
Independence and Self-Suciency
Our ndings regarding limited autonomy (including dealing with
curfews, work/school requirements, and more) are similar to those in
other studies (Geenen & Powers, 2007; Goodkind, Schelbe, & Shook,
2011; Rauktis, Fusco, Cahalane, Bennett, & Reinhart, 2011). Like these
works, we found that experience in state care has an incredibly poignant
eect on youth. Yet that eect ranges. For some, it creates a sense of
perpetual childhood, where they feel limited in expressing their inde-
pendence despite a structural emphasis on self-suciency. For example,
similar to a work by Rauktis and colleagues that identied youth feel-
ing dierent from “regular” kids (Rauktis, Fusco, Cahalane, Bennett, &
Reinhart, 2011), one participant in our study said that having to have
background checks before going to a friend’s house, which made her
feel “stuck” and like she “never really had the opportunity to go out
and make friends and stu (Participant 120, female, age 18). Other
authors have similarly found that youth formerly in care cited having
decisions made for them, with little emphasis placed on helping them
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
grow their own decision-making abilities (Geenen & Powers, 2007;
Scannapieco, Connell-Carrick, & Painter, 2007). is was echoed by
our participants, who said they felt constrained in decision-making and
Others, however, are able to leverage the nancial, social, or emo-
tional support aorded by DCF and its representatives. Isolationism as
a response to system restrictions as well as in pursuit of an ideal of inde-
pendence was also common here as in other samples of youth formerly
in foster care (McCoy, McMillen, & Spitznagel, 2008; Unrau, Seita, &
Putney, 2008). Here, however, we nd evidence that isolationism is not
simply a reection of how youth navigate their entry into adulthood
but is also a strategy for preparing themselves for the isolation they
perceive to be endemic to being an adult.
Reliance and Interdependence
Similarly, in aiming for total independence, many respondents expressed
a hesitation to rely too heavily on others, feeling it may signal imma-
turity and inadequate preparation for the lack of eective safety nets
upon exit from system involvement. is work also aligns with research
suggesting that youth who are involved in foster care oftentimes had
to “grow up quickly due to absent or inadequate parenting and were
hesitant to rely on others as a result (Morton, 2017; Samuels & Pryce,
2008). Youth formerly in foster care often have pre-placement history
involving care for younger siblings and others, and had to be “adult and
isolate themselves to “survive” at an early age (Samuels & Pryce, 2008).
It is feasible that this predisposes some of them to this narrative about
needing to be so self-reliant (Unrau, Seita, & Putney, 2008). Future
research is needed to determine whether this is indeed a characteristic
unique to care-involved youth.
Implications for Social Work Practice
Eorts to promote youth independence from foster care may—
intentionally or unintentionally—promote a more rigid ideology of
Child Welfare Vol. 97, No. 5
adulthood. Emerging adult literature suggests that independence at the
expense of encouraging the development and retention of supportive
adults is counter to developmentally sound practices. As such, child
welfare practice standards should engender the fostering of healthy
interpersonal relationships. is can be challenging in the context of
child welfare, but as the eld considers the value of interdependence,
we can continue to build on recent eorts made toward prioritizing
healthy interpersonal relationships for youth formerly in foster care
(Propp et al., 2003; Zinn et al., 2017). In addition, ndings suggest-
ing that youth may be willing to sacrice potentially benecial out-
comes in favor of achieving their “independence” imply that the eld
may benet from programming or formalized mentorship to improve
skill development across domains such as goal identication (Ahrens,
DuBois, Richardson, Fan, & Lozano, 2008; Greeson & ompson,
2017; ompson & Greeson, 2017).
is study did not examine interdependence as a standalone construct
but rather explored within a broader research inquiry, limiting the
comprehensiveness of our examination of interdependence among this
sample. However, robustness is indicated given that interdependence
themes were consonant across research teams that used this data for pre-
vious inquiries. In addition, the original impetus of the research, explor-
ing emerging adulthood and support networks, naturally connects to
constructs of interdependence, giving credence to this narrowed focus.
A further limitation concerns data collection. is study did not use a
prolonged engagement methodology, so the youth perspective captured
during this point-in-time interview may provide limited reections on
interdependence and its aligned constructs.
As a qualitative study, this work is not representative of all youth
who are on the cusp of, or who have recently, emancipated from state
care. is sample are associated with two programs that provide support
for youth aging out of foster care and may reect the perspectives of
Hokanson et al. Child Welfare
those who are more invested in moving toward independence. Eman-
cipating youth who are not involved in supportive programming may
have distinct insights not captured here. Drawing insights from other
youth, particularly those from other child welfare systems and of dif-
fering levels of “success,” would improve the context sensitivity of the
research and our understanding of the contours of independence and
its relationship to interdependence.
is study continues our eld’s progression forward in the inclusion
of youth voices to improve our understanding of the challenges and
attributes that compose their experiences. With this knowledge, we are
better prepared to consider the importance of attending to the implicit
messages that our programming, policy, and practice responses imply.
With such insights, we can better gauge the disconnect between what
we say and what may be heard to improve our eorts to support emerg-
ing adults in their journeys.
Ahrens, K. R., DuBois, D. L., Richardson, L. P., Fan, M. Y., & Lozano, P. (2008). Youth
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... Despite research on emerging adulthood, for years the prevailing assumption has been that individuals who have been impacted by the foster care system should exit the system at age 18 or 19 and be able to navigate new social relationships alongside figuring out how to meet their basic material needs of food, clothing, health, and shelter. This assumption has been baked into policies targeting youth aging out of foster care (Goodkind, Schelbe, & Shook, 2011;Hokanson, Golden, Singer, & Berzin, 2020;Morton, 2017;Samuels & Pryce, 2008). Indeed, most states are only required to provide foster care services until youth reach age 18, leading to variation among state child welfare systems in service accessibility among emerging adults. ...
... The discrepancy between what we expect of emerging adults who have been separated from their families of origin and impacted by the foster care system and their non-foster care impacted peers has received more recognition in recent years (Berzin, Singer, & Hokanson, 2014;Hokanson, Golden, Singer, & Berzin, 2020;Propp, Ortega, & NewHeart, 2003). In 1999, the Foster Care Independence Act created the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP), which increased support for youth who might be likely to remain in foster care until they reached adulthood as well as support for youth who had aged out of foster care. ...
... Further, the rules and requirements of being in extended foster care might not be developmentally appropriate; as noted by the individuals in foster care who participated in Berzin's, Singer, and Hokanson (2014) study, emerging adults want to be able to make their own choices and this might affect their desire to request or use foster care services. Other scholars have spoken of the need to focus on interdependence, not independence, for older emerging adults who have been impacted by the foster care system (Berzin, Singer, & Hokanson, 2014;Hokanson, Golden, Singer, & Berzin, 2020;Propp, Ortega, & NewHeart, 2003) and we echo those calls. To do so we must consider how to design an extended foster care system that encourages use by emerging adults, which requires that it be developmentally appropriate in terms of rules and benefits, culturally sensitive given the heterogeneity in the emerging adults who might be eligible, and is funded in a way that ensures emerging adults receive supports they need to thrive. ...
... For some first-generation college students, the value on self-reliance is learned from their families as a response to societal marginalization (Chang et al., 2020;Hagler et al., 2021). For others, particularly foster care alumni and homeless youth, a history of disappointments and betrayals by adults and systems of care inform a strong desire to avoid dependence on others (Goodkind et al., 2011;Hokanson et al., 2019;Lenkens et al., 2020;Morton, 2017;Pryce et al., 2017;Samuels & Pryce, 2008). ...
... Negative emotional and relational experiences can affect a young person's openness to engaging with others (Samuels et al., 2018;Seita et al., 2016). Past negative experiences in previous helping relationships may inform a reluctance to seek help in young adulthood (Hokanson et al., 2019) and a skepticism of the effectiveness of formal services (Goodkind et al., 2011;Munson et al., 2012;Schenk et al., 2018). ...
... For young adults, the ability to exercise personal agency is developmentally meaningful (Goodkind et al., 2011) and can enable both risk and resilience (Payne et al., 2021;Samuels et al., 2018;Samuels & Pryce, 2008). For example, foster care alumni report pride in their abilities to manage their affairs independently (Goodkind et al., 2011;Hokanson et al., 2019;Katz & Geiger, 2019;Lenkens et al., 2020;Morton, 2017). Yet an extreme emphasis on self-reliance can also impede academic achievement and persistence in college (Morton, 2017). ...
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Independent students pursue higher education without financial, practical, and sometimes emotional support from family. For these students, asking for assistance when needed is key for college persistence. Decisions around help-seeking are shaped by multiple factors but are often portrayed as a solely individual decision. This study examined factors affecting help seeking among independent students enrolled in a four-year university. Within a process evaluation of a campus support program for independent students, we conducted in-depth, individual interviews with 23 independent students ages 18–23, as well as 5 university staff. Students described a range of psychological and relational factors influencing their willingness to seek assistance and identified significant barriers to help-seeking. In contrast, staff interviews focused more on perceived student deficits in help-seeking. Both groups also identified institutional factors that influenced student efforts to seek assistance. Findings can inform the development of effective campus-based services to support the retention of independent students.
... Other efforts to understand protective support factors underscore the evolving nature of social support networks as youth mature in foster care and transition into adulthood (Zinn et al., 2017a;Hokanson et al., 2019). Drawing on data from a longitudinal panel survey of youth in foster care, Zinn and colleagues (2017a) found that lower levels of support created greater instability in social support trajectories, with differences further exacerbated when transitioning into adulthood. ...
... Lower baseline measures of support also re ected less adequate social networks and may be associated with poorer social-emotional skills of affected youth, resulting in greater di culties and greater social support loss when transitioning out of the foster care system (Zinn et al., 2017a). Similarly, as youth in foster care become emerging adults, tensions arise between youth's desire for independence and their continuing need for developmentally appropriate interdependence (Hokanson et al., 2019). Indeed, the regulatory nature of the foster care system was perceived as a major limitation to youth's ability to exercise and grow their self-e cacy skills despite the pressure from courts to be self-su cient (Hokanson et al., 2019). ...
... Similarly, as youth in foster care become emerging adults, tensions arise between youth's desire for independence and their continuing need for developmentally appropriate interdependence (Hokanson et al., 2019). Indeed, the regulatory nature of the foster care system was perceived as a major limitation to youth's ability to exercise and grow their self-e cacy skills despite the pressure from courts to be self-su cient (Hokanson et al., 2019). ...
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With notable and growing exceptions, there is a dearth of research on mechanisms by which youth in foster care build resilience and achieve positive outcomes. We report on data from an interview study with young adults exiting or recently exited foster care in Maryland (N=15) designed to understand what facilitates their engagement with courts. Our findings indicate that despite challenges of “being in foster care”, youth found ways to pursue their goals and make their voices heard through developing stable relationships with supportive adults (including judges, caseworkers, or lawyers) and demanding that child welfare professionals “speak to me not at me.” Youth indicated that their needs, capabilities, and goals changed as they matured and as their circumstances changed. Such changes helped them find their voices but also created tensions within their child-welfare system interactions. This led us to develop the theory of adaptive responsivity, according to which child welfare stakeholders should respond appropriately to developmental and circumstantial changes to help child-welfare involved youth face difficult circumstances and thrive. Such responses include providing developmentally and situationally appropriate information and decision-making power to youth in their own cases as well as opportunities to weigh in on systems change.
... Youth in foster care report having little agency in making decisions about their lives (Hokanson, Golden, Singer, & Berzin, 2020). This may be because of the legal views on children in the United States; children often have very limited agency because their rights are not enshrined within the Constitution (Gil, 1984). ...
... Issues with providing limited resources or information to youth in care (despite the existence of these resources) and attempts to control all aspects of their lives (via hyper surveillance) represent systemic oppression (Gil, 1984;James et al., 2003) and this study demonstrates that these features of the system actually do more harm than good in the lives of care leavers. This is supported by other studies that have focused on this population (Berzin et al., 2014;Hokanson et al., 2020;Kools, 1997). ...
... There is no gradual phasing out of the supports provided to care leavers, which is counter to the process of emerging adulthood. This and other studies Courtney et al., 2018;Hokanson et al., 2020;Paul-Ward, 2009;Pecora et al., 2005;Pecora et al., 2003), as well as theory (Arnett, 2007a;Schoeni & Ross, 2005) demonstrates the transition to adulthood represents a period of instability in the lives of young people and that gradually reducing supports in necessary to promote selfsufficiency. ...
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Care leavers (adults formerly in foster care) are more likely to have negative outcomes in adulthood than non-fostered peers, especially in employment, earnings, and education (Courtney et al., 2011; Courtney et al., 2018; Pecora et al., 2005; Pecora et al., 2003). Success is determined by how well care leavers are able to demonstrate positive outcomes in these domains, but these domains are often defined by policy and research. Services provided by legislation focus on independent living skills to promote care leavers’ educational and employment opportunities in adulthood (Collins, 2014). However, little research has explored how care leavers themselves define success, determine their own goals, and use the services provided to meet their goals. Informed by the identity capital model (Côté, 2016b), this study answers the questions: 1) how do care leavers define success in their own words, 2) what self-defined goals did care leavers have as they transitioned out of care, and 3) what human, social, and cultural capital was available to help care leavers meet their goals at transition. Using a narrative approach, 15 care leavers were asked to offer their own definition of success, goals at transition, and provide details into what human, social, and cultural capital resources they had available to meet their goals. Findings indicate care leavers’ definitions of success demonstrate a focus on achievement, life satisfaction, and connection, and their goals are aligned with those determined by legislation and research. However, many had yet to achieve their transition goals by the time they aged out of aftercare services. This delay was based on systemic barriers that inhibited care leavers from building various capital during their time in care and during their transition to adulthood; these barriers are endemic to the child welfare system and posed a form of structural oppression in the lives of children and care leavers. This indicates a clear need for policy, practice, and research to determine better ways to provide services and reduce the impact of structural oppression within the child welfare system for future care leavers during their time in foster care, the transition from foster care, and early adulthood.
... In order to assess the perceived level of ILS and personal autonomy, 2.2.2 | General Self-Efficacy Scale Self-efficacy, which is understood as the belief in the capacity of one's actions to achieve specific outcomes (Bandura, 1977), was included to study its contribution to perceived ILS in both subsamples. Although high self-efficacy can be a protective factor that promotes care leavers' resilience and life satisfaction (Cicchetti, 2010;Refaeli et al., 2019), several authors have highlighted how this can be negatively impacted by the constraints of childcare environments (Hokanson et al., 2019;Stein, 2005). Self-efficacy was assessed using the Spanish adaptation of the General Self-Efficacy Scale (Baessler & Schwarzer, 1996). ...
... Regarding self-efficacy, young people in the CEG exhibited lower levels than their peers. These results are consistent with previous literature suggesting that being placed in care could affect the development of self-efficacy and self-esteem due to the perceived constraints and powerlessness of young people's acts and decisions over their lives (Hokanson et al., 2019;Stein, 2005 employment career (Arnau-Sabatés & Gilligan, 2015Sanders et al., 2020) and also their likeliness of higher educational attainment (Hook & Courtney, 2011). ...
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Transition to adulthood is an accelerated and early process for care leavers that requires intensive preparation, training and support from child welfare services. This study aimed to explore the perceived readiness for independent living of a group of care‐experienced young people preparing for leaving care in Spain and to compare it with the perceptions of their peers from the general population. A sample of 508 youth (50% women) aged 14–21 (M = 16.67; SD = 1.72) took part, of whom 279 were care experienced and 229 belonged to the general population in Spain. Participants' independent living skills, personal autonomy, self‐efficacy and sociodemographic characteristics were assessed through an online survey using standardized instruments. Care‐experienced young people displayed higher levels of life skills and autonomy in self‐care, daily living at home and employment domains, but not related to making daily arrangements in their community. However, their educational level and self‐efficacy levels were lower than in the comparison group. Work experience stood out as a significant predictor of care‐experienced young people's life skills level. These findings support the importance of assessing life skills as an outcome of leaving care preparation services and providing care‐experienced young people with real‐life experiences to develop their life skills.
... foster care lead youth to redefine and expand the meaning of family and to forge significant ties with adults and peers (e.g., Avant, Miller-Ott, and Houston 2021;Ball et al. 2021;Hokanson et al. 2020;Katz and Geiger 2021;Morton 2016;Samuels , 2009). Yet, as a field, we are just beginning to investigate how common long-lasting relationships are among youth in care and whether having these relationships supports favorable outcomes during their transition to adulthood. ...
Applying social interdependence theory as a framework for document analysis, this paper considers eight evaluations of an extended care scheme in England known as ‘Staying Close’. Findings suggest that for extended care projects like ‘Staying Close’ to work, any service offer designed to support the transition from residential care to independent living must be seen by the young person, the carer, and the wider social network, as a continuation of earlier efforts to build and nurture a genuinely committed relationship. A new interrelations model for extended care is introduced and implications are discussed for strategic responses that enable young people, their carers and wider social network to promote opportunities for social interdependence.
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With notable and growing exceptions, there is a dearth of research on mechanisms by which youth in foster care build resilience and achieve positive outcomes. We report on data from an interview study with young adults exiting or recently exited foster care in Maryland (N=15) designed to understand what facilitates their engagement with courts. Our findings indicate that despite challenges of ?being in foster care?, youth found ways to pursue their goals and make their voices heard through developing stable relationships with supportive adults (including judges, caseworkers, or lawyers) and demanding that child welfare professionals ?speak to me not at me.? Youth indicated that their needs, capabilities, and goals changed as they matured and as their circumstances changed. Such changes helped them find their voices but also created tensions within their child welfare system interactions. This led us to develop the theory of adaptive responsivity, according to which child welfare stakeholders should respond appropriately to developmental and circumstantial changes to help child-welfare involved youth face difficult circumstances and thrive. Such responses include providing developmentally and situationally appropriate information and decision-making power to youth in their own cases as well as opportunities to weigh in on systems change.
Youth who age out of group homes and transitional living programs with serious mental health needs can abruptly lose critical supports, including housing and mental health treatment access. Little is known about how these particularly vulnerable youth navigate these large shifts in support. Twenty youth diagnosed with serious mental health conditions completed three in-depth interviews (within four-months of planned emancipation and at six- and 12-months post-emancipation). Brief monthly check-ins prevented attrition. Participants transitioned from a receiver/complier role in a mental health treatment context pre-emancipation to a provider/exchanger role in a poverty context post-emancipation. Independence was short-lived post-emancipation; temporary emancipation funds and disability benefits provided a brief cushion. Participants were unprepared for navigation of mutual social support exchanges. Child welfare providers who aim to prepare youth for independence post-emancipation must better understand the social context youth age into, as well as youth’s desired and required resource exchanges.
Foster youth face high risks and poor outcomes after aging out of care resulting in great economic and human costs to society. The purpose of the study was to describe life experiences of children aging out of the foster care system from the perspectives of adults who have successfully navigated this transition. Their life experiences during this period provided meaningful information for this study which helped to identify themes. Their perceptions of the periods during and after their transitions were explored to investigate supportive relationships, education, and workplace stability. Phenomenology was used to describe the experiences of nine young adults who had aged out of foster care. Participant ages ranged from 20 to 25 years old. Audiotaped semi-structured interviews were conducted for the study. Data analysis was ongoing throughout data collection. Four themes were identified: (1) “Facing a transition”; (2) “Depending on adults for help”; (3) “Making a difference for others”; and (4) “Moving forward with my life.” These four themes highlighted the participants’ experiences as they aged out of foster care. This study contributes to our understanding of the life experiences of former foster youth who are successful after the transition out of foster care. Recommendations for practice and research are identified.
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Emerging adulthood, the developmental stage between ages 18 and 25, presents unique barriers to former foster youth, who experience higher rates of unplanned pregnancy and homelessness and poorer educational attainment than their peers during this time. This study uses interviews with 20 youth formerly in foster care who exhibit better-than-average outcomes to explore contextual aspects of resilience during emerging adulthood, elucidating how both relational and organizational support contribute to their resil-iency. Implications for social work policy and practice are discussed.
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Emerging adulthood has been defined as a distinct developmental stage in which youth experience opportunities for identity development and transition toward independence. While this period has been examined for youth in the general population, less is known about how foster youth experience this transition. This study uses qualitative interviews with 20 foster youth to understand their experiences during emerging adulthood. Consensual qualitative research is used to analyze data and develop core themes around youth experiences. Foster youth not only report sharing many characteristics with youth in the general population during this stage but also have experiences that are uniquely tied to their foster care history. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.
This qualitative interview study examined experiences of youth-initiated mentoring relationships (YIM) among youth transitioning out of the foster care system. YIM is an innovative approach wherein programs work with youth to identify adults within their existing social networks to serve as their mentors in the formal program. Participants were 13 mentor-youth dyads involved in a pilot trial of YIM in a mid-western city. Youth and mentors completed one-time, in-depth individual interviews. Narrative thematic analysis of the interview data yielded the following major findings: (a) youth overwhelmingly reported having a strong or very strong relationship with their mentor, (b) these relationships offered a number of forms of social support to the youth (i.e., appraisal, companionship, emotional, informational, and instrumental), and (c) the mentor was perceived to have positively impacted the youth during the course of the relationship in multiple ways, including the youth's psychological well-being, relationships with others, and beliefs about and orientation toward the future. These findings suggest that YIM is a promising approach for establishing meaningful and impactful connections that may promote interdependence for older foster care youth as they make the transition to adulthood.
Foster care alumni face overwhelming challenges as they transition from care to independence. Torn between their desire to be independent, yet acknowledging they need support, they struggle to find their footing. Adopting a survivor self-reliance mind-set, they set out to earn a bachelor's degree on their own. As they struggle, they compare themselves to non-foster peers who, by enlarge, have a support system enabling them a prolonged entrance to adulthood, which provides a safety net. Without a safety net, and with a focus on independence, decisions youth from foster care make, result in few alumni earning a bachelor's degree.
Objective Research suggests that the presence of natural mentors may ameliorate the risk associated with emancipating from foster care, though only half of foster youth have natural mentors. This study investigated the extent to which involvement in prosocial activities is associated with natural mentoring among youth at risk of emancipation. Method Using data from the Multi-Site Evaluation of Foster Youth Programs, we applied multinomial logistic regression to test the association between involvement in prosocial activities and natural mentoring among 720 foster youths, ages 14–17, who were at risk of emancipation. Results Controlling for demographic and child-welfare characteristics, foster-youth participation in hobbies/activities decreased the likelihood of having no natural mentors and no supportive adults by 57%, having only formal mentors by 60%, and having only foster parents by 49%. Participation in organizations/clubs decreased the likelihood of having no natural mentors and no supportive adults by 42%, and having only foster parents by 42%. Participation in religious services decreased the likelihood of having no natural mentors and no supportive adults by 43%, and having only foster parents by 37%. Conclusion This study contributes to our understanding of modifiable environmental factors that policymakers and practitioners may promote to facilitate natural mentoring relationships among foster youth at risk of emancipation.
Research suggests that social support influences a number of important young adult outcomes. Unlike other youth, however, foster youths' ties to their families, peers, and communities may be attenuated by the experiences of maltreatment, removal from home, and disrupted foster care placements. To address these challenges, public child welfare agencies have implemented a number of policy and practice reforms. In many ways, however, these efforts have not been well-informed by empirical research. A better understanding of how social support develops during this crucial stage of life could help to inform the formulation and targeting of interventions designed to facilitate social connections and support among foster youth. Based on data from a longitudinal panel survey of foster youth in three Midwestern states, the current study attempts to elucidate the nature of social support development among former foster by using a combination of descriptive and person-centered analyses. Results suggest several important features of social support development among this population. For example, differences in social support appear to be amplified and distilled during emerging adulthood. Together, the results suggest that efforts intended to assess and fortify social connections and support should start well before emancipation and continue well into young adulthood.
Aging out of foster care is associated with deleterious emerging adulthood outcomes. The enduring presence of a caring adult, such as a natural mentor, can improve outcomes for emancipating foster youth. Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere (C.A.R.E.) is a novel, child welfare-based intervention designed to facilitate natural mentor relationships among aging-out youth. Our aims were to test the feasibility of implementing C.A.R.E. and the feasibility of conducting a randomized controlled study with older foster youth. Twenty-four foster youth aged 18–20.5 years were recruited and randomly assigned to the intervention (n = 12) or control groups (n = 12). Ten natural mentors were identified and contacted for participation in the intervention and study. Process-oriented qualitative data and quantitative pre- and postintervention outcome data were collected and analyzed. Utilizing a controlled rigorous design, the findings highlight the positive experience of both the intervention youth and their natural mentors with C.A.R.E. Overall, results support the continued refinement, delivery, and rigorous testing of C.A.R.E. with great promise for programmatically supporting natural mentor relationships among youth aging out of foster care.
Foster youth in the United States face significant barriers in a transition to independence which is markedly abrupt compared to the ‘emerging adulthood’ that is expected of most young adults. While many of the difficulties that foster youth face in this transition are known at the larger demographic level, first-person narratives of the process of ‘aging out’ of foster care are largely missing from academic literature. To date, most qualitative studies rely on methods that are not grounded in trust-based relationships between researchers and youth (e.g. hit-and-run focus groups, interviews conducted by research assistants unknown to youth, indirect assessment of youths’ emotional states). In an attempt to advance youths’ own narratives, we used critical ethnography to engage youth in sharing their perspectives on the process of ‘aging out’ of foster care. Youths expressed anxiety about their subjective experiences of ‘aging out’, including economic challenges and housing instability, loss of social support, and pressure to be self-reliant. Youths’ narratives during the early stages of transition from foster care provide insights for professionals, policy makers, and future research.