Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 30 YA (average age 27.5) who experienced diverse exits from foster care as adolescents. Interviews were linked to participants’ administrative files, which contain their official child welfare records and discharge outcomes. Participants’ were subsequently grouped by their state-recorded discharge outcome: aged-out (n=17) vs. legal permanence (n=13). A priori and open coding of interviews was conducted to develop themes of well-being and adult functioning, followed by a comparative analysis between YAs discharge outcomes.
Results: Findings revealed a mixed picture of well-being and adult functioning among this YA sample. YAs who attained legal permanence were less likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and have intact relationships with their caregiver (adoptive parent, guardian, foster parent, or relative), and receive government benefits compared to their peers who aged-out of foster care with no legal permanence, findings not anticipated by current child welfare policy. Consistent with the aims of current child welfare policy, although the permanency group was less likely to graduate from high school, those who enrolled in college were considerably more likely to graduate from college compared to their aged-out counterparts. Moreover, the permanency group was more likely to report being employed, reside in an established independent household, and being in a committed long-term relationship than the aged-out group. However, the permanency group reported experiencing some form of violence (e.g., gun, intimate partner, and sexual violence) and incarceration at higher rates than the aged-out group.
Conclusions & Implications: The findings accentuate the challenging nature of the transition to adulthood for YA with foster care histories. On key indicators of employment, receipt of government benefits, and romantic partnering, YAs who achieved legal permanence fared better than their peers who aged-out of foster care. These positive outcomes are the intention of child welfare policy. However, study findings provide no support for the policy assumption that the attainment of legal permanence provides greater familial, emotional, and material support, nor that legal permanence yields better outcomes relating to educational attainment, violence, and incarceration. A future research agenda will be discussed that includes understanding both the outcomes of permanency policy and the mechanisms affecting these outcomes.