Abstract: Social Networks Among Young Adults Transitioning from Foster Care to Adulthood (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Social Networks Among Young Adults Transitioning from Foster Care to Adulthood

Friday, January 14, 2022
Supreme Court, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Narendorf, PhD, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Caitlyn Mytelka, LMSW, Doctoral Student, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Michelle Munson, PhD, Professor, New York University, Silver School of Social Work, New York, NY
Sarah Helaire, Research assistant, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Background: Young adults transitioning out of foster care fare worse than their same aged peers in the general population across a range of outcomes (Courtney et al., 2011). One key point of intervention for improving outcomes is social support, a topic that has begun to be explored as a potential lever for planning and sustaining effective transitions out of the system (Blakeslee, 2012, 2015). Our study expands on prior work by using a mixed methods social network approach to understand the size, composition, characteristics, and types of support provided by the networks of young adults transitioning out of care with a focus on mental health.

Methods: This study included young adults ages 18-25 who were eligible for transition supports in one region of Texas. Participants were recruited through case workers and scheduled for a zoom interview that included a structured network survey and a qualitative interview. Participants were asked to name up to 20 individuals who provided them support in the past year. Follow-up questions assessed type of support, frequency of contact, and the role of network members. Qualitative questions explored young adults’ lives since turning 18 and probed for information about the individuals in their networks. Ego-network visualizations were reviewed along with qualitative transcripts and survey responses by an analysis team. We used a multiple case study approach to describe all aspects of each case, then identified cross cutting themes and key areas of divergence.

Results. Our sample (n=16) had mean age of 19.7 (SD=1.7) and was majority female (81%) and BIPOC (88%). Network size ranged from 4-20 (Mean=10.8, SD=4.2). Almost all networks included a professional or another adult that they had met through foster care (94%). Our team identified fragile relationships defined by circumstance such as case managers in transitional housing programs compared with supports that had more permanence, such as mentors and family. Greater network size did not always align with a perception of higher support. Smaller networks were often characterized as a deliberate choice to stay away from drama in their lives while larger networks contained members that provided limited support. Peer relationships were limited in many networks with over half of participants identifying one or fewer peers. A mental health professional appeared in only one network; however, on average, participants indicated half the individuals in their networks provided them with mental health support.

Discussion. Our study highlights the importance of understanding the quality and types of social relationships in youth’s networks as they leave care. Self-reliance and small selective social networks may be adaptive for young adults with a history of disrupted relationships. Programs and interventions may seek to enhance long-lasting relationships outside the system including natural mentors to structure more durable supports for youth as they leave foster care. Mental health supports were largely provided outside the mental health service system, highlighting the need to develop interventions for delivery in other service settings.