Academic journal article Child Welfare

Foster Youth Emancipating from Care: Caseworkers' Reports on Needs and Services

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Foster Youth Emancipating from Care: Caseworkers' Reports on Needs and Services

Article excerpt

This article presents findings from a survey mailed to caseworkers, who answered questions about special needs, independent living skills, educational attainment, and services for 416 randomly selected foster youth in Illinois. A third of the adolescents had a mental health disorder, developmental disability, or other special need that their caseworkers believed would interfere with their ability to live independently. Additionally, urban youth were underserved relative to other youth. Youth with more behavior problems and educational and job skill deficits were less likely than other youth to continue to receive child welfare services past age 18, suggesting that services must be provided throughout adolescence to meet the needs of the most vulnerable clients.

Nationally, about 20,2000 youth emancipate from foster care each year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1999). Although few studies have followed these adolescents into adulthood, existing research suggests that former foster youth are at high risk for negative outcomes, including homelessness, incarceration, drug use, victimization, and reliance on public aid (Benedict, Zuravin, & Stallings, 1996; Cook, 1994; Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, & Nesmith, 2001; Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000; Mangine, Royse, Wiehe, & Nietzel, 1990; Stoner, 1999). Concern about the outcomes for youth who age out of foster care led to implementation of the Independent Living Initiative in 1987 (P.L. 99-272). This amendment to Title IV-E allows states to provide transitional living services to youth who are 16 and older. The effects of this legislation, however, are not clear; studies completed since this act was passed suggest that about half of foster youth continue to be inadequately prepared for independent living (Cook; English, Kouidou-Giles, & Plocke, 1994; Stoner).

Readiness for independent living is affected by both an adolescent's tangible life skills, such as how to obtain and keep a job, and intangible life skills, such as problem-solving, self-esteem, and anger and grief management (Nollan et al., 2000; Ryan, McFadden, Rice, & Warren, 1988). Additionally, these skills cannot be assessed independently from characteristics of the adolescent that might impede attaining or using them. Many foster care youth have significant educational, behavioral, and mental health needs that may cause difficulties with successfully attaining independence. For example, a study of 431 youth completed in Washington State finds that 54% had a disabling special need (English, Kouidou-Giles, & Plocke, 1994). Nearly half (48%) had noncompliant behavior, and 26% had dropped out of school. Results from Courtney and colleagues' (2001) longitudinal study in Wisconsin are similar. In their sample of 141 foster youth, more than 70% of respondents reported one or more delinquent acts, and about 40% admitted to more serious offenses such as breaking and entering (14%), attacking someone outside their home (18%), and being drunk in public (24%). After emancipation from foster care, only 61% were employed.

Another study conducted in the late 1980s finds that among a cohort of 1,650 adolescents, two-thirds had not graduated from high school on time, 17% had experienced pregnancy, 38% were emotionally disturbed, 16% had delinquency records, and 29% had substance abuse problems (Cook, 1994). The high prevalence of these types of serious special needs supports the importance of providing adequate support to older youth who are transitioning to independent living.

Recent amendments to Title IV-E in the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 attempt to address the special needs of older adolescents in foster care by increasing funding for independent living programs and stating that independent living services should be provided to youth in need of such programs. Research suggests that these types of services may have the potential to improve self-sufficiency at discharge from care (Cook, 1994; Scannapieco, Shagrin, & Scannapieco, 1995). …

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