Abstract: Former Foster Youth's Experiences of Cumulative Adversity before and during Foster Care: A Narrative Approach to Co-Constructing Ways of Knowing about Life Histories & Hardship (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Former Foster Youth's Experiences of Cumulative Adversity before and during Foster Care: A Narrative Approach to Co-Constructing Ways of Knowing about Life Histories & Hardship

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Encanto A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Judith Havlicek, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Background: Studies find that a substantial proportion of foster children have been exposed to multiple adversities and chronic caregiver-related traumas; that those with greater accumulation of adversities exhibit more (dis)stress; and the higher the number childhood adversities, the higher the risk for negative outcomes. This emerging body of scholarship analyzes both clinical data (Kisiel et al., 2009; Greeson et al., 2011) and survey data (Rebbe et al., 2017) to calculate levels of risk based on available indicators of adverse childhood events (ACES) in the data. Missing from this collection of studies are approaches that seek clarity from former foster youth about (1) the events that have unfolded in their life histories and (2) the meaning they make of them. This study aims to fill this gap and showcase the ways that narrative knowledge is created and constructed through the stories of lived experiences and their meanings.

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 between 90-120 minutes. Participants were asked to place significant events on a timeline, spanning from birth to the present; complete a personal network map; and nominate one “support” person from foster care for a stakeholder interview (n=6). First, the timelines and narrative data were integrated into a single database. Second, the research team read and coded 42 professionally transcribed interviews ((12x3)+6), meeting weekly to develop a codebook and resolve discrepancies. In this step, a process of constant comparison was used to explore themes and identify conceptual patterns in data within and across interviews. In the final step, conceptual categories and thematic concepts were refined and mapped within and across six developmental periods from birth to adulthood.

Results The most common ‘clusters of life events’ derived from young people’s perspectives, are presented in a visual model representing a depiction of the analysis. Though there is variance and diversity in experience, one thread that weaves through each life history is cumulative adversity. Elements of young people’s history of adversity were present before they were born and accumulated in each developmental period thereafter. While a majority made significant progress towards independent living in the transition to adulthood, unresolved trauma stemming from cumulative adversities made it a challenge to maintain progress.

Discussion/Implications The findings from this study raise important questions about existing efforts aimed at identifying and addressing childhood trauma histories of young people while in foster care. The participants spent between 5 and 21 years in foster care, and from their perspectives childhood experiences of trauma were misunderstood, ignored, and avoided. The interviews and tools aided in the process of recounting events and their meaning, but most wished they had had greater clarity around these experiences and their impacts earlier in their lives.