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

Support Network Stability and Member Turnover As Foster Youth Transition to College

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 11:00 AM
Nautilus 3 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer E. Blakeslee, PhD, Research Assistant, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Background and Purpose:  Older adolescents with foster care experience need comprehensive support embedded in their social networks to successfully navigate important transitions. The availability of this interpersonal support has not yet been assessed in youth network context. This study investigates formal and informal transition support from a social network perspective by systematically measuring personal and service-oriented relationships to assess network-level changes related to social support provision among a sample of foster youth successfully transitioning into post-secondary education and training programs.

Methods:  Study participants (N=27) are young adults (mean age=20.27, SD=1.23) recruited through Independent Living Programs and college programs serving foster youth in Portland, OR. The sample is 74% female, and participants identified as White (44%), African American (26%), Hispanic/Latino (15%), and mixed race/other (15%). Youth were living with foster or adoptive families (30%), biological family (15%), partners or roommates (30%), or alone (26%). Using a name-generating network instrument (adapted from Tracy & Whittaker, 1990), participants identified network members and reported on the strength of the relationship (tie), the provision of three types of social support, and the presence of ties between members. Networks were measured at baseline and 6-months later. Parametric paired-samples t-tests and nonparametric related-sample comparisons were conducted to test differences over time in network structure, composition, tie characteristics, and support provision.

Results: Network size, average tie strength, and degree of support provision all showed statistically significant increases over time (p<.05). The follow-up networks include 3 more members on average, which is a 41% expansion, and more members were named in all compositional categories (family, friends, school/work, and other). There was also an increase in the mean number of parent figures identified and a decrease in service-providers. Overall, network ties are stronger and provide 10% more support per tie at follow-up, with the most notable increase in emotional support provision. On average, participants retained about 40% of their network members from baseline to follow-up, and more ties were added than lost at follow-up measurement. The degree of network member stability over time is associated with gains in support per tie (r=.556, p<.01), and gains in total informational (r=.401, p<.05) and concrete (r=.514, p<.01) support provided.

Conclusions and Implications:

Although the best-case scenario may be associated with networks with the least member turnover, the average degree of network instability reported here is nonetheless desirable; not only are networks becoming larger, particularly through the addition of supportive biological or foster family members, but relationships are becoming stronger and more supportive on average (more detailed findings explain how tie characteristics relate to support provided). This is positive news regarding support provision during service-related transitions, although it is important to note that post-secondary students with foster care experience are a relatively high-functioning group; rather than representing support patterns among all transition-age youth with foster care experience, these exceptional networks may exemplify somewhat ideal functional support patterns in ways that inform practice with the broader population of older youth in care.