Abstract: "Breaking the Cycle": The Experience of Independent Living Among Former Foster Youth with Untreated Trauma (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

"Breaking the Cycle": The Experience of Independent Living Among Former Foster Youth with Untreated Trauma

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Judy Havlicek, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Urbana, IL
Hyunil Kim, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
Background: Achieving independence in adulthood – independent living – has been the cornerstone of child welfare policy and practice targeting foster youth without permanence in the United States. Although debates endure over how independent living should be defined (e.g., independent vs. interdependent living) and activated (e.g., through concrete skills for work and school vs. relational skills for trust, belonging, and security), this discourse rarely considers the effects of trauma on adult functioning or the patterns that get repeated when childhood traumas remain hidden, misunderstood, and untreated. Important insights may come from viewing the experience of independent living from the interpretations of and adaptive responses to acute and ongoing traumas in foster youths’ lives.

Methods: This study employed retrospective life history methods in semi-structured interviews of former foster youth between the ages of 22 and 35. Twelve participants completed three interviews each, lasting 90 minutes, on average. Participants were asked to place significant events on a timeline, spanning from birth to the present; complete a personal network and an eco-system map; and nominate one “support” person from foster care for a stakeholder interview (n=6). The research team read one set of transcripts and identified themes. The themes were further refined and expanded through reading of an additional set of transcripts. The refined codes were placed in a codebook. Two team members then read and coded all 42 transcripts ((12x3)+6), meeting weekly to resolve discrepancies. A process of constant comparison was used to explore themes within and across interviews and identify patterns in data (Charmaz, 2006). Hunches were explored through memos and diagrams (Padgett, 1998).

Results: Independent living was experienced in the context of tensions between making remarkable progress in work and school to experiencing devasting setbacks, especially in relationships. Coping with these tensions is what we came to understand and eventually label as, “Unresolved Relational Trauma” or the sustained trauma that occurs in childhood relationships, usually familial, and repeats or cycles in other relationships when unaddressed. Three interrelated mechanisms contributed to this cycle: (1) Self-Protection: Accepting injustices and killing “a part of yourself” to survive; (2) Stigma: Growing up with messages of “what is wrong with you” and not what happened to you; and (3) Knifing Off the Past: Accessing opportunities and creating distance.

Conclusion/Implications: Without opportunities to address trauma histories, the participants developed adaptive coping strategies that offered protection in the short-term, but also contributed to challenges in independent living. The findings from this study raise important questions about existing efforts aimed at identifying and addressing childhood trauma histories of youth while in foster care. The participants spent between 5 and 21 years in foster care, and from the perspectives of the participants childhood experiences of trauma were misunderstood, ignored, and avoided. Future research ought to understand how child welfare systems make meaning of child and family histories of trauma and build greater capacity for disrupting transmission of intergenerational trauma.