Methods: Data for this qualitative study were collected using a non-probability sampling and cross-sectional design. We conducted one-on-one semi-structured interviews of 26 young people (ages 18 to 26) currently in or aged out of foster care from multiple states in the United States. This study was open to eligible participants for a 60-day period from July to September 2022. The semi-structured interview consisted of 23 questions comprising demographic information, mental health challenges during COVID-19, and strategies to alleviate mental health challenges. Analysis was guided by an inductive strategy rooted in grounded theory, wherein transcribed interviews were evaluated for both open and axial coding and distilled into selective/thematic coding found in the results section.
Results: Participants ranged between the ages of 18 and 23 years old (M = 20.5 years, S.D. = 1.7 years), and were either currently in or aged out of foster care (M = 5.9 years in care, S.D. = 4.4 years). Of the twenty-six young people, 77% were female-identifying, 38% identified as White, and 27% as Hispanic. Salient themes include: (1) presence and gaps in supportive relationships; (2) emotional, physical, and situational responses to the pandemic, including COVID-related concerns and external/environmental factors; (3) adaptive coping skills and mindsets, and unmet needs; and (4) institutional supports and gaps.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that the pandemic has exacerbated extant challenges in receiving individual and institutional support for youth in or aging out of foster care. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that youth in foster care develop relationships with trusted, caring adults, and to bolster opportunities to develop appropriate peer relationships. Youth also identified challenges in accessing quality mental health services, which underscores the need to increase access to both therapy and opportunities for vulnerable youth to explore and utilize self-identified coping skills. Moreover, our findings demonstrate the need for policies that promote the practice of collaborative casework with youth, as well as expanded financial assistance for older youth in and aging out of foster care. It is our hope these results and their implications will be used to improve how this country responds to this marginalized group of young people when the next disaster strikes.