Methods: This study is part of a larger ethnography of youth “aging out” of foster care which examines youth leaving care in a Mid-Atlantic urban county in the United States. In addition to over 800 hours of participant observation over two years, 92 in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand the process of aging out. During data collection, there were interactions with over 100 youth and a couple dozen service providers. The focus of this study is on several youth. Data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach involving an inductive, iterative process of coding and memoing (Charmez, 2006).
Results: All youth aging out struggled to meet their basic needs. Many lacked stable housing; some resorted to “couch surfing” at friends’ home, dating someone to have temporary housing, or pooling resources to live in overcrowded apartments. Some stayed at shelters or in subsidized apartments. Frequently, youth lacked money to buy food or pay bills (i.e., phone, medical, car). Youth relied on government assistance and support from non-profits as well as support from romantic partners, family, and friends. They worked hard to survive, yet often their needs remained unmet.
While most youth were employed, at least temporarily, wages were inadequate. Youth found creative ways to augment their income. This was sometimes involved capitalizing on relationships with family or romantic partners. Some did “side jobs” or worked “under the table.” Other youth resorted to selling drugs or were involved with illegal activites. Several youth vocalized their wish to no longer be part of illegal activities, yet they felt stuck due to their past and not having other viable options.
The intersection of economic necessity, risks due to life circumstances, and the neighborhoods in which youth lived created multiple barriers. Out of necessity, youth lived in poorer neighborhoods where there were high levels of crime and violence. These communities offered few opportunities for youth and created additional challenges.
Conclusions and Implications: While youth struggled during their transition out of care and into adulthood, they were resourceful and resilient. Youth employed a variety of strategies to survive as they negotiated the transitions on their own. To ensure that youth aging out successful transition into adulthood, efforts must be made to dismantle the systematic barriers youth encounter. Youth aging out may be one of the country’s most vulnerable populations and social workers must advocate on their behalf. The foster care system must prioritize helping youth aging out to be prepared for adulthood with adequate skills and resources. Future research should examine how services can best assist youth aging out of care.