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: There was broad agreement among youth that adulthood can be defined as being able to take care of oneself. This paper explores the cultural, developmental and experiential roots of this belief, as well as how it relates to the youths' feelings of being in between childhood and adulthood. Specifically, youths' comments highlighted the contradictory messages they were receiving and their feelings of being neither children nor adults. While many youth believe that as young adults they should be able to take care of themselves, they discover this to be more difficult than anticipated. Challenges to this transition noted by youth include lack of material resources, family support, and friends, as well as justice system involvement and parenthood, and many expressed regret that they were unable to return to the system once they had left.
Implications and conclusion: These findings point to a need for additional options for youth aging out of the child welfare system. Perhaps Pennsylvania and other states should follow Illinois, Minnesota, and twenty other states in allowing youth over age 18 the option of returning to care (Dworsky & Havlicek, 2009). These findings also highlight the necessity of challenging independence as goal for youth aging out of care (see Propp et al., 2003) and helping youth develop relationship skills and social networks, as well as the understanding and ability to ask for and accept the help they need (Samuels & Pryce, 2008).