Methods: The sample comprised 50 care leavers and their current social workers. The care leaver sample comprised 25 young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 (average age 22) who came from therapeutic residential care, youth villages, and foster care, Two different semi-structured interview protocols were developed for the two groups, consisting of open-ended questions focusing on two main themes: 1) the role and contribution of the care leavers’ formal social networks (e.g., social workers, counselors); 2) the role and contribution of the care leavers' informal social networks (e.g., parents, family, friends) to their emerging adulthood. The main method used to analyze the interviews was theoretical thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
Results: Three major themes arose from the both groups descriptions regarding formal networks. The first theme was practical guidance and support and related to providing access to needed resources and acting as mediators between care leavers and various institutions or figures of authority. The second theme was adopting new perspectives and included two subthemes: promoting a positive future outlook and encouraging adaptive coping. Finally, the last major theme was safe haven and referred to social workers’ provision of a place and time for self-reflection, as well as attentive and caring relationships. Both groups described three kinds of relationships with informal figures (i.e., mostly parents, siblings, and friends) including a lack of relationships, unsupportive or harmful relationships, and supportive relationships -those that provided a "sense of belonging" and "empathy and shared fate'. The role of informal figures was described in much greater detail by the social workers than it was by the young adults.
Conclusions and implications: findings highlighted the contribution of the care leavers’ formal social networks via their enabling of care leavers’ self-exploration, their provision of practical support, and their promotion of care leavers’ positive perceptions of the future. Although the contribution made by the care leavers’ informal social networks was limited, findings indicated the importance of these networks for the care leaver's sense of belonging and normalcy, stability, and need for empathy and understanding. The discussion elaborates on the role of social networks, as a powerful asset for care leavers, during this challenging period. In terms of practice, it is recommended that care leavers continue to receive support from various formal figures in their lives who can assess their needs holistically and promote their daily independent living and future accomplishments.