The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Early Adult Identification Among Foster Care Youth: Is Emerging Adulthood Lost?

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 10:00 AM
Nautilus 3 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Erin R. Singer, MSW, Doctoral Student, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Stephanie C. Berzin, PhD, Associate Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Background & Purpose: Over the past decade, the transition to adulthood has lengthened; in fact, many youth do not identify as adults until their late twenties when they feel that they have reached a level of self-sufficiency and social maturity. While the time period of emerging adulthood (between ages 18-26) has become distinct for many young people, research is scarce that examines how previous life experiences impact this stage. Using cumulative advantage-disadvantage (CAD) as a theoretical framework, the current study explores differences in the transtion to adulthood between youth with and without foster care experience. Specifically, we ask the following key research question: When compared to youth in the general population, are foster care youth more likely to identify as adults, and therefore miss this time period of emerging adulthood? Furthermore, we ask whether foster youths’ identity as an adult during this time period can be explained by earlier life course role transitions, or individualistic indicators of adulthood.  

Methods: This study uses data from Wave III of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). Add Health includes a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades 7 – 12 in the United States in 1994-1995. Wave III took place in 2001-2002 when these youth were between the ages of 18 to 26. The study sample (n=4624: foster care youth=72; non-foster care youth=4552) is from the public-use dataset, a random subset of the full Add Health sample. The analysis incorporated study design features to correct for the complex sampling design. In a series of logistic regressions, we tested for a primary association between foster care experience and adult identity, and then analyzed the mediating effect of five adult role transitions (i.e. marriage/cohabitation, parenthood, full-time work, finished school, and establishment of an independent household) and two individualistic indicators of adulthood (i.e. financially independent and socially independent).

Results: Overall, study findings show that foster care youth are more likely to identify as an adult all of the time during emerging adulthood. In fact, having foster care experience increases the odds of perceiving oneself as an adult all of the time by a factor of 2.04 (p < .05), when all controls are in the model. Interestingly, foster care youth are no more likely than non-foster care youth to have made adult role transitions or exhibit personal qualities of independence.

Conclusions & Implications: Study findings suggest that foster care youth may have a different experience of emerging adulthood than non-foster care youth. However, it is neither individualistic indicators, nor adult role transitions that explain why foster care youth are identifying as adults earlier than their peers in the general population. Further research is needed to identify mediating factors, as well as consequences of early adult identification. As explained by CAD theory, previous system disadvantages, coupled with socio-cultural disadvantages, may curtail the experience of emerging adulthood for youth with foster care experience. Consequently, these youth are less likely to accumulate the additional advantages of emerging adulthood, such as identity exploration and social capital development.