Abstract: The Experience of Independent Living Among Former Foster Youth: Breaking the Cycle (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.

352P The Experience of Independent Living Among Former Foster Youth: Breaking the Cycle

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Judith Havlicek, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, 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 cumulative effects of childhood adversities on adult functioning or the patterns that get repeated when past hardships remain hidden, misunderstood, and untreated. Important insights may therefore come from viewing the experience of independent living from the interpretations of and adaptive responses to life events prior to and while in foster care.

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.