The well-being of youths who age out of the out-ofhome care system in the U.S. has long been of great interest to child welfare practitioners and policymakers. In spite of this interest, however, very little is known about how these youths fare when they must make the transition to independence. The Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study is tracking the experiences of 141 young adults who left care in Wisconsin in 1995 and 1996. This article describes these youths and their experiences in the first 12 to 18 months after leaving care. The findings suggest that the transition to independence is a difficult time for youth leaving the outof-home care system.
Every year, an estimated 20,000 youths "age out" of the foster care system and find themselves, in most cases, completely on their own (Westat, 1990). A review of research on the adult functioning of those in out-of-home care as children concluded that there has been a dearth of such research over the past 30 years and that what has been done generally suffers from significant limitations (McDonald, Allen, Westerfelt, & Piliavin, 1996). Among the reported methodological problems of the available studies are the following:
* Sample attrition is often large, thus raising serious question as to whether children targeted for study but not observed may be quite different from those who are targeted and observed.
* The timing of transitions into and out of care among members within the same samples is radically different. Some enter as infants, others as adolescents; some leave as infants or toddlers, others may stay until their late adolescence. All manner of variations among these extremes are observed in most investigations.
* Some samples comprise individuals whose exposure to care does not coincide with others in the sample and for whom the duration of post-care experiences are substantially different than their sample peers.
* Study designs are almost exclusively cross-sectional, making it impossible to draw inferences as to whether some phenomena of importance preceded or followed in time other phenomena of importance.
In only four published investigations are attempts made to deal with even some of these problems.' All four examine the post-care experiences of young people who age out of care, thus largely controlling two important elements of the out-of-home care experience, age of departure (late adolescence) and condition for departure (discharge due to age ineligibility).2 Even so, three of the studies have several other major limitations,3 thus leaving only one project, that reported by Festinger (1983), as the major study known to us to be largely free of the problems vitiating survey-based outcome studies of children formerly in care. Festinger's study, based on a sample of 277 young people who aged out of out-of-home care in 1975, targets a well-articulated population, employs a probability sampling design, and provides information on the life circumstances and problems of these young people shortly after they left care. Its main shortcomings are that it is based on individuals from only one community, is somewhat dated, and most serious, may have a serious sample attrition problem.4
In addition to the methodological limitations of previous surveys examining adult experiences of youths formerly in foster care, changes in the out-of-home care system itself have rendered the findings of most such previous studies of limited usefulness today. For example, only four survey studies of youths formerly in out-of-home care have been conducted since the passage of the Independent Living Initiative of 1986 (P L. 99-272) (McDonald et al., 1996). Although this initiative altered the child welfare services landscape for youths in out-of-home care by providing federal funding for services to prepare youths in care for living independently in the community, almost nothing is known about the degree to which its intent has been realized. …