The (mis) use of formal and informal supports by youth in care during the transition to adulthood

Date Published: 
09/06/2016
Source: 

Singer, R.E., Cosner Berzin, S. & Hokanson, K. (2013). Voices of former foster youth: Supportive relationships in the transition to adulthood. Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 2110-2117.

Reviewed by: 
Melanie Doucet
Summary: 

This study examines how former foster youth conceptualize and utilize their informal and formal relational networks developed during their time in care, and the forms of support provided by network members as they age out of care. Using an approach drawn from social convoy theory, a qualitative research method requiring participants to complete a network map, was utilized to identify the persons youth assigned as part of the inner, middle and outer social circles. The authors claim that this particular qualitative research tool can be especially powerful for former foster youth as it provides them with a broader framework to define their non-traditional support network.

The authors used a Consensual Qualitative Research (CQR) methodology to conduct within case and cross-case analyses and identify themes and patterns from the interviews with the 18 participants. The youth involved in the study were between the ages of 18 to 21 years and were part of community-based support programs for youth who are preparing for emancipation or have recently left the foster care system in the U.S. The authors found that although youth identified a large network including both formal and informal supports, there were gaps in the forms of supports provided by informal members, especially pertaining to instrumental (e.g., money, spending time together) and appraisal (e.g., evaluative feedback) supports. Youth also showcased a heavy reliance on former formal support systems, which are impermanent in nature. This may be indicative of unrealistic perceptions of their support network and a lack of knowledge or experience to determine healthy, supportive and permanent relationships. The authors suggest that youth may be struggling in their transition to adulthood not due to a lack of network members, but a misuse of available resources and an overestimation of the quality of their support network.

The authors stress that their findings support a shift in the child welfare system from a focus on independence to one of interdependence. Due to the importance placed on both formal and informal networks by youth, the authors recommend that formal supports be extended and include after care services and that social workers be transparent about the impermanent nature of the relationship. An emphasis on building, maintaining and properly utilizing youths’ informal networks should also be stressed, as those relationships can be used as a bridge to ensure proper supports after aging out of the formal system. The authors conclude that further longitudinal research is required to deepen our understanding of the important role relational networks and supports have in the lives of youth aging out of the foster care system, and should focus on also incorporating adults and peers. 

Methodological notes: 

The authors used a qualitative research methodology approach drawn from social convoy theory, which required participants to complete a network map that was utilized to identify the persons youth assigned as part of their inner, middle and outer social circles. The authors claim that this particular qualitative research tool can be especially powerful for former foster youth as it provides them with a broader framework to define their non-traditional support network. It is important to note that the sample included more male (n=14) than female participants (n=4) and only included youth connected to transition support services. The authors were unable to account for response bias in the Network Chart exercise.