Abstract: The Role of Racial Identity on a Child's Trajectory through Foster Care Pre- and Post-Awol (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The Role of Racial Identity on a Child's Trajectory through Foster Care Pre- and Post-Awol

Friday, January 13, 2023
Ahwatukee A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Stephen Oby, PhD, Assistant Professor, Salisbury University
Background and Purpose: Youth elopement from out-of-home placement settings represents a disruption for both affected youth and the entities responsible for their care. Youth who engage in this behavior, an action colloquially referred to as AWOL, are potentially exposed to dangers including high-risk sexual activity, substance abuse, criminal justice involvement, and physical violence.

Several studies indicate that children identified as Black are more likely to AWOL. This is part of a broader trend of outcome disparities for non-White youth in foster care, a context in which AWOL outcomes may have systemic implications.

While the factors that predict AWOL are well explored, the impact of AWOL on a child’s trajectory in foster care is less meaningfully addressed in prior scholarship. This analysis of federal data enables an understanding of a child’s long-term trajectory through the child welfare system and how racial identity is relevant to that trajectory.

Methods: Data and Samples: This project utilized three datasets from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN), which combined outline a youth’s trajectory through foster care. A sample of nearly 10,000 placement episodes spanning eight years in the state of Maryland is analyzed to examine racial identity and AWOL, and a national sample of 1,000 youth is analyzed regarding racial identity and post-AWOL outcomes.

Measures: Two separate analyses occur. In the pre-AWOL analysis, a Firth regression model examines the interaction between racial identity and other AWOL predictors, including the number and type of maltreatment reports, removal reason, and reunification goal. In the post-AWOL analysis, propensity score matching is utilized to compare outcomes of youth who AWOL and youth who do not, controlling for a youth’s racial identity.

Results: Racial identity appears relevant to a youth’s trajectory prior to and through a placement episode. Firth regression analysis and the associated analysis of penalized deviance indicates that racial identity affects why a youth is removed from home, what reunification goal a youth is assigned and, relatedly, whether youth AWOL. Propensity score analysis reveals that non-White youth who AWOL are statistically more likely to experience a number of unwanted outcomes as compared to an equivalent comparison group.

Conclusions and Implications: This study demonstrates the role of racial identity throughout a youth’s trajectory in foster care pre- and post-AWOL. A number of pre-placement factors combined with a youth’s racial identity impact the odds that a youth will ultimately AWOL. An AWOL event is distressing on its own, but this outcome additionally affects a youth’s post-discharge outcomes, including when accounting for racial identity.

This study also represents important work on the study of AWOL. Many prior large-scale AWOL studies generate lists of risk factors without consideration of how these factors interact. In that context, racial identity is one of many characteristics that affect AWOL risk. The described study illustrates how racial identity not only impacts whether an AWOL occurs but interacts with several relevant factors both pre- and post-AWOL, suggesting that a youth’s racial identity can define their experiences in foster care related to AWOL.