Abstract: Success and Educational Advancement of Former Youth in Foster Care: A Qualitative Inquiry Related to Social Work and Advanced Degree Attainment (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Success and Educational Advancement of Former Youth in Foster Care: A Qualitative Inquiry Related to Social Work and Advanced Degree Attainment

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Ahwatukee A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Sebrena Jackson, PhD, Associate Professor & MSW Program Director, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Toni Naccarato, PhD, Associate Professor, California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA
Background and Purpose: Youth in foster care have historically had challenges in the area of education attainment. Many foster youth have gone on to become social workers based on their personal experiences in the child welfare system; however, this is anecdotal information and has not yet been formally studied in the current scholarly literature. This qualitative study surveyed those adults who left the foster care system and became social workers, having completed their Masters in Social Work (MSW) or a Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) in the Social Work field or equivalent. The goals of the current project were to: give voice to these former foster youth in what their lived experience has been to achieve their educational goals, why the individual chose the social work profession, what supports and services were available for them to achieve their social work career and educational goals, and their recommendations for policy, practice, and research. This is the first research project that has explored the voices of these individuals and their journey from foster care to an educational institution, and finally to a career in the social work field. For the purpose of this presentation, we will focus on the foster care experiences data.

Methods: Fourteen in-depth structured interviews were conducted. Participants were recruited using snowball sampling. The researchers generated an initial list of prospective participants based upon research and practice experiences. The participants were interviewed using video conferencing. The average interview length was 90 minutes. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim and coded using Nvivo12. Data analysis was guided by grounded theory and the principles of Braun and Clarke’s six-phase process to conduct thematic analysis.

Results: Participants were between the ages of 25 to 54. The sample was predominantly female (8 females, 5 males, and 1 participant who described himself as male, gay, and queer), single (7 single, 6 married, and 1 in a relationship), African Americans (10 African American, 1 African American/Native American, 1 Puerto Rican, 1 Bi-racial, and 1 Mixed) with MSWs (9 MSW only, 3 MSW/PhD, 1 MSW/DSW, and 1 MSW/enrolled in a PhD program).

Participants reflected on their first memories of foster care and themes of confusion, sibling separation, and trash bags emerged. Perceived benefits of foster care included themes of positive life experience, breaking the cycle, financial benefits, basic physiological needs, and environmental change. A magic wand discussion yielded themes of biological family relationships and embracing foster care experiences. Findings regarding support needed for foster youth included the themes of consistent support person, individual stories, and pre-college programs.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings highlight the power of early experiences in foster care in shaping the identity of social work professionals. Implications include the need for additional training of foster parents to provide trauma-informed care, work with youth to recognize, embrace and reframe their foster care experiences, and revise policies that support the on-going connections to biological families. Future research should explore the experiences of former foster youth who choose other career paths.