Abstract: Why do Youth Leave Care? Youths' Perspectives on the Decision to Exit the System (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

13189 Why do Youth Leave Care? Youths' Perspectives on the Decision to Exit the System

Sunday, January 17, 2010: 9:45 AM
Pacific Concourse E (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Schelbe, MSW , University of Pittsburgh, Doctoral Student, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and purpose: Youth aging out of the child welfare system face numerous challenges. A recent study indicates that youth who stay in the system beyond age 18 generally fare better than those who exit at 18 (Courtney et al., 2005). This suggests that engaging youth in the child welfare system as they transition to adulthood may provide needed supports and services. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, 86% of youth leave the system within one month of their 18th birthdays, despite the continued availability of services. This fact raises important questions regarding how the child welfare system can engage these youth to remain in care, as well as how the system is organized to provide necessary supports and services while also recognizing the increasing autonomy of these youth. Drawn from a larger study of the experiences of youth aging out of the child welfare system in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, this paper addresses the question of why youth choose to leave care.

Methods: Data for these analyses come from in-depth interviews with 45 youth aged 18-23 in the process of transitioning out of child welfare and into adulthood. Youth were recruited from independent living meetings organized by the Department of Human Services, a local agency providing drop-in educational and workforce assistance to transitioning youth, and through local contacts to ensure that youth not involved with services would also be included. Youth were interviewed individually and in small focus groups. Participants included 26 young men and 19 young women; 35 were African American, 5 White, 3 bi-racial, and 2 Hispanic. Participants were asked open-ended questions about their past and current experiences and challenges, perspectives on adulthood, and plans for the future. Data were analyzed through an iterative process of coding, memoing, and discussion among key study personnel.

Results: Youths' reasons for leaving care can be divided into two broad categories. The first, which is characterized by youths' confusion and misinformation, includes their lack of knowledge that staying in the system was an option, feelings of being forced out, misunderstandings about the conditions of staying in, and confusion among some youth about whether or not they had left the system. The second category is related to youths' desire for autonomy and independence. Included are beliefs that they can make it on their own, wishes for control over their lives, and marked dislike for congregate care settings.

Implications and conclusion: These findings point to a need for better communication between child welfare service providers and youth preparing to age out. Increasing numbers of localities offer services beyond the age of 18, but this study suggests that many youth may be unaware or misinformed about the types of services offered and requirements for their receipt. These findings also highlight the need for a recognition and incorporation of youths' growing need for autonomy and self-determination in the services offered to them, as well as for alternatives to congregate care during this process.