Abstract: The Relationship between Legal Permanency Among Older Foster Youth and Their Outcomes (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The Relationship between Legal Permanency Among Older Foster Youth and Their Outcomes

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Ahwatukee A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Mark Courtney, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Sunggeun (Ethan) Park, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Nathanael Okpych, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut, Hartford
Justin Harty, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, AZ
Background and Purpose: In recent years, researchers and policymakers have become concerned with relationships between extended foster care (EFC), exits to legal permanency (e.g., family reunification, adoption, guardianship) and early-adult outcomes among older foster youth. Previous studies found fewer exits to legal permancy for older youth in foster care after EFC was implemented. This study examines the relationship between foster youth’s legal permanency exits, EFC stay, and their outcomes in early adulthood.

Methods: Our analyses include 30,703 transition-age foster youths who turned 18 after the Californian EFC program implementation (i.e., January 2012) and whose records can be observed until their 21st birthday (i.e., March 2017). We leveraged multiple administrative data. Using California’s child welfare administrative data, we generated the primary independent variable capturing youth’s permanency status on and after their 18th birthday. We grouped youth who left foster care before age 18 based on how they exited the care: (1) reunification, (2) adoption, (3) guardianship, or (4) another reason (e.g., runaway, incarcerated). We grouped youth who were in care on their 18th birthday based on their time in EFC: (5) <1 year, (6) 1.00-1.99 years, (7) 2.00-2.99 years, and (8) 3.00 years (i.e., until their 21st birthday). We measured youths’ education outcomes using National Student Clearinghouse records and their employment and public aid usage outcomes using California’s administrative records. We used regression analyses to investigate the relationships between youth’s permanency status and years in EFC and their later outcomes.

Results: Regarding permanency status, 22% exited care through legal permanency between ages 16 and 18 (i.e., 16% through reunification, 2% through adoption, and 4% through guardianship). About 6% exited care before their 18thbirthday for other reasons. The rest of the sample (72%) stayed in care on their 18th birthday, including 33% who remained in EFC until their 21st birthday. The regression analyses show mixed associations between youths’ permanency status and outcomes. Youth who stayed in EFC for three years showed a higher rate of postsecondary education enrollment than youth who exited care before their 18th birthday via permanency or other reasons (both p<01). Compared to youth who exited care via permanency, youth who stayed in EFC for three years were expected to work about two months more and earn about $2,000 less between 18 and 21 (both p < .01). Youth who exited care through reunification were significantly more likely to receive SNAP and TANF between 18 and 21 than other groups (p<.001).

Conclusions and Implications: Consistent with previous findings, the majority of older youth in care participate in EFC for considerable amounts of time when given the opportunity. Only one-in-five exited to permanency. Spending time in EFC was associated with some benefits such as increased college enrollment, longer employment, and decreased utilization of public benefits. Interestingly, the materialization of benefits in some domains depended on the length of time youth remained in EFC. These findings draw attention to the importance of understanding the benefits of exiting to legal permanency versus remaining in EFC, and which benefits remain over time.