Abstract: A Narrative Study of Institutionalization and Parenting Identity Among Parenting Youth in Foster Care (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

A Narrative Study of Institutionalization and Parenting Identity Among Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Friday, January 18, 2019: 8:30 AM
Continental Parlor 7, Ballroom Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Kristen Ethier, MA, Researcher, University of Chicago
Amy Dworsky, PhD, Research Fellow, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Elissa Gitlow, MSW, Researcher, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: Young mothers in foster care are faced with multiple, often simultaneous developmental transitions to parenthood, to adulthood, and to exiting the child welfare system (Courtney 2009; Pryce and Samuels 2010). However, scholarship on pregnant and parenting youth in foster care has largely focused on their risk for adverse life course outcomes, and on their children’s risk for intergenerational child maltreatment(Putnam-Hornstein, Cederbaum, King, Cleveland, et al. 2013). Comparatively little attention has been paid to the experience of being a young mother in in the child welfare system. Further, the persistent focus on risk detracts attention from the broader social forces, including systemic racism, normative conceptions of motherhood, and the structure of the child welfare system, that shape the experiences of youth mothers in foster care. This paper uses a reproductive justice framework, which requires centering youth voices to cultivate understanding and elevating their right to parent in safe and healthy environments, to examine how parental identity development, key feature of the transition to parenthood, is shaped by the child welfare system, among young mothers in foster care.

Methods: This qualitative, narrative study uses data from in-depth interviews with 20 parenting youth in foster care who are participating in an evaluation of the Illinois Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Care Home Visiting Pilot. The sample includes young mothers who were in foster care and either pregnant or parenting a child under age one at the time of enrollment. The study sample is predominantly first time mothers (n = 19) who are African American (n=18). Their ages range from 15 to21-years-old.

Findings: The parenting identities of young mothers in foster care are deeply shaped by the child welfare system through processes of institutionalization. Young mothers describe being required to engage in parenting services, abide by system rules, and having to access resources from the child welfare system to materially provide for their children. Further, the parenting identities of young mothers in foster are also shaped by their child welfare placement. This is especially true for young mothers placed in congregate care settings where their parenting is under a high level of surveillance by program staff.

Conclusion and Implications: This study contributes to our theoretical and empirical knowledge about the role of institutionalization in parental identity formation for systems-involved youth. The findings suggest a need for child welfare and family support providers to address the unique conditions of institutionalization as it relates to parental identity development. They also highlight the importance of providing access to parenting supports outside of the child welfare system and the need for additional investigation of how child welfare system policies and practices influence parenting behaviors among parenting youth in foster care.