Abstract: The Effect of Legal Orphan Status on Adverse Outcomes for Young Adults Aging out of Foster Care: A Secondary Data Analysis of Linked Afcars and Nytd Datasets (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Effect of Legal Orphan Status on Adverse Outcomes for Young Adults Aging out of Foster Care: A Secondary Data Analysis of Linked Afcars and Nytd Datasets

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Daniel Gibbs, MSW, Doctoral student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill
Melissa Villodas, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Background and Purpose: In the United States, tens of thousands of youth age out of the foster care system each year without a permanent family. These youth are at risk of experiencing many negative outcomes due to a lack of social support and other factors. Additionally, rapid timelines for initiating termination of parental rights proceedings set forth in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 have resulted in many of these youth entering young adulthood as “legal orphans” with no legal relationship to a supportive adult (Freitas, Freitas, & Boumil, 2012). Despite rising concerns from practitioners and researchers, no empirical evidence exists showing the long-term effects of legal orphanhood. Accordingly, this study seeks to determine whether one's status as a legal orphan is associated with increased odds of experiencing homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration in young adulthood for youth who have aged out of foster care.

Methods: This study utilized merged data from AFCARS and NYTD datasets to link foster care experiences and outcomes in young adulthood for the 2014 NYTD survey cohort. The subsample analyzed (n = 2108) included former foster youth who (1) aged out of foster care, (2) submitted outcome survey responses at ages 17, 21, and 23 and (3) had no more than two removals to foster care. Dichotomous outcome variables captured whether or not the youth experienced homelessness, substance abuse referrals, and incarceration between the ages of 17 and 23. Another dichotomous independent variable representing legal orphanhood was treated as a focal variable for the three resulting logistic regression models. The models also included gender, race, and several established risk factors (number of removals, number of placements, cumulative number of days in custody, and prior delinquency adjudications) as covariates.

Results: Of the 2108 young adults in the sample, 38 percent experienced homelessness, while 17 percent received a substance abuse referral and 25 percent experienced incarceration. Overall results of the logistic regression models for homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration indicate that they fit the data better than null models (x2(12) = 169.05, 65.50, and 257.48 respectively; p < .001) and variation inflation factors for all variables were well within recommended levels (range = 1.00 to 1.45). While legal orphan status was associated with a 38 percent increase in the odds of homelessness (B = .32, SE(B) = .12, p < .01), no reliably non-zero associations were found regarding substance abuse or incarceration. Notably, one’s number of removals, delinquency adjudications, and Native American heritage were reliably predictive of higher odds for all outcomes (OR = 1.25 to 2.93, p < .05).

Conclusions and Implications: While most effect sizes are modest, these findings suggest that practitioners and policymakers should critically evaluate current permanency planning procedures and determinations of youths’ best interests in termination of parental rights proceedings. Further, this study signals both the need for further investigation of the prevalence and risk factors of legal orphanhood, as well as the research potential inherent in connecting foster care experiences with outcomes in young adulthood through administrative data.