Methods: This study utilizes a new method in social work research, Optimal Matching (OM), which treats the entire sequence of placement changes over the length of time in foster care as the unit of analysis and searches for common patterns in sequences. The sample was drawn from the 474 foster youth from Illinois who were randomly selected to participate in a longitudinal study of youth aging out of foster care in 3 states (the Midwest Study of the Adult Functioning of Foster Youth Making the Transition to Adulthood). Information about their foster care placements came from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) administrative data. Placement events were followed from the time of first entry into foster care until the age of 17.5. Multinomial logistic regression was used to predict factors associated with patterns that are identified.
Results: Optimal matching analyses revealed 5-patterns of movement in foster care that were distinguished by rate of movement, predominant placement settings, and length of time in care. Patterns also map onto policy developments occurring in Illinois during the observation period and suggest that changes in placement shape and are shaped by the social environments in which they are embedded. Multivariate findings suggest several individual, family, and child welfare factors are related to pattern membership.
Conclusions: Patterns in placement changes can be identified for this highly heterogeneous sample of youth who come into foster care at different ages, for different reasons, and had widely varying experiences during placement. Identifying the particular pathways these youth have taken through foster care has implications for planning for needs during the transition to adulthood.