A Comparison of Competency Between Foster Care and Non-Foster Care Emerging Adults Experiencing Homelessness: Policy and Practice Recommendations
The unsatisfactory achievement of adult competency among emerging adults aging out of foster care is well documented. However few studies have examined how development within the child welfare system impacts the ability to achieve competence. In this study, homeless emerging adults who had not aged out of foster care were compared to peers who were homeless and aged out of foster care. To better understand the process of development within the child welfare system, this study used Life Course Developmental Theory, specifically the role of learned helplessness to understand how the child welfare system affects the development of children and their ability to achieve competencies.
Using participatory action research methodology, emerging adults who aged out of foster care collected data including (1) quantitative, standardized measures; (2) semi-structured qualitative interviews; and (3) qualitative, open-ended focus groups. Additionally, the interview instrument included scales, including a stress/coping scale, a social connectedness, and the K-6 scale, which measures mental health and well-being and has been previously used with homeless emerging adults. Participants (n=134) were recruited through agencies that serve homeless youth in 4 cities. Primary inclusion criteria were 18-24 years old, homeless, and signed informed consent. Transcripts of the qualitative interviews were analyzed using content analytic procedures. Intercoder reliability was calculated using percent agreement, Cohen’s Kappa, Krippendorf’s Alpha, and Scott’s Pi. All measures were above 0.80 on the coding of learned helplessness while there was perfect agreement on the coding of self-reliance. As a final validity, member checking was conducted on the results of this study by a foster care alumni. The qualitative data compared participants across domains of competence. Consistent with the existing research base, this study defined adult competency as: 1) mental health (measured with the K6 scale); 2) educational attainment; 3) employment status; 4) social support (measured by the social connectedness scale); and, 5) stress and coping skills (measured by the stress and coping scale). All measures of competence were computed using independent groups t-tests.
The results indicated that, 1) homeless emerging adults who have not aged out of foster care may be an appropriate comparison group for those who have aged out, 2) homeless emerging adults who aged out of foster care were more likely to have a perception of learned helplessness that may impede their ability to achieve adult competency when compared to those who did not age out of foster care, while those who did not age out of foster care were more likely to report perceptions of self-reliance and 3) despite receiving services to prepare them for adulthood, homeless emerging adults who aged out of foster care had as much difficulty achieving adult competency as their homeless peers who did not receive services.
The data provide promising findings that may improve policies and programs that serve youth growing up in the child welfare system. Policies to minimize the development of learned helplessness in foster care populations while encouraging self-reliance, implications for social work practice and developmentally based child welfare research are discussed.