Abstract: Advancing the Study of Foster Youth: Applying Complexity Theory to Generate More Inclusive Services (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Advancing the Study of Foster Youth: Applying Complexity Theory to Generate More Inclusive Services

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
JoAnn Lee, Ph.D., Associate Professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Background and Purpose: Foster youth are a heterogenous population of children and youth, each from unique social systems comprised of a combination of components including their family, school, and community. These foster youth each have unique histories of trauma and other experiences that contribute to their risk for negative developmental outcomes. Standard approaches to knowledge-building often make assumptions about linearity and/or that individuals and experiences are normally distributed. Yet, these approaches may not be adequate for foster youth who are most at-risk, especially those who would be analytic “outliers” (i.e., those who may be at the “edge of chaos”). Complexity theory (also referred to as complex systems or complex adaptive systems) offers an opportunity to move beyond the reductionist approach which examines each component separately. Instead, complexity theory focuses on the whole system, including the dynamic interactions between components of the system. This study is a review of the use of complexity theory in social work research to date in order to develop a framework for studying foster youth that incorporates a complex systems approach.

Methods: Searches of the academic databases using “child welfare” and “complexity theory”, “complex adaptive systems” or “complex systems” were conducted. Titles and abstracts were reviewed to assess whether the study referred to complicated problems, but did not use complexity theory. Only articles referring to complexity theory were included in the study, as well as relevant articles cited in the found studies. The resulting articles (N = 15) were both theoretical and empirical, and were reviewed for this study.

Results: Complexity theory has been applied to developing conceptual frameworks for social work practice generally. Within child welfare, complexity theory has been integrated with social networks to develop a framework that examines the child welfare system as agencies embedded within networks. Additionally, complexity theory has been used to propose an alternative approach to evaluating risk for child protective services. Finally, complexity theory informs the use of system dynamics modeling to examine the use of housing vouchers, as well as homeless services.

Conclusions and Implications: Some social work scholars have begun to apply complexity theory to studying the child welfare system, demonstrating the conceptual potential of incorporating this theoretical approach into social work theories and models such as the person-in-environment framework and the ecosystems perspective. Yet, frameworks informed by complexity theory may require advanced computational methods in order to fully test these emerging theoretical frameworks. These computational methods include some techniques that already are being used in social work research, such as system dynamics modeling, social network analysis (SNA), and GIS. Additionally, tools include computer simulation such as agent-based modeling (ABM). Complexity theory offers the opportunity to take into account foster youth who are most at-risk, as it is better suited for power-law distributions and/or complicated situations. In this way, we can reconceptualize the most “at-risk” foster youth as being at the “edge of chaos,” which is also the space of the most creativity and possibility.