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 competing tensions between pushing forward and leaving the past behind. Young people were fearful of repeating patterns in their families so they pushed Coping with these tensions is what they labeled as “Breaking the Cycle” – an identity which actively chooses to have a different life than the one given to them as children. Three interrelated mechanisms contributed to this identity: (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 clarify past life events, the participants developed adaptive coping strategies that offered protection in the short-term, but also contributed to challenges after foster care. They disconnected from the past and pushed forward, but the past would inevitably resurface in ways that could repeat past hardships. 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. Study tools supported young people to connect life events into a whole and showcase stories of resilience, but most wished they had opportunities to reflect on this history earlier in their lives. Future research ought to examine child welfare system contexts and their capacity to support healing from trauma.