Research Watch

Systematic Review finds more rigorous studies needed to assess impact of independent living programs for youth leaving care

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Elizabeth Fast

Donkah, C., Underhill, K., & Montgomery, P. (2006). Independent living programs for improving outcomes for young people leaving the care system. Cochrane Collaboration Systematic Review


This Campbell/Cochrane Systematic Review aimed to examine the effectiveness of Independent Living Programs (ILPs) for youth transitioning from foster care or residential care to independent living. Research shows that youth leaving out- of-home care have poorer outcomes than their peers in terms of adequate housing, employment opportunities, physical and mental health. They are also overrepresented in the youth criminal justice system in several countries (U.S., England, Canada, Australia, Scotland and Wales). ILPs, which offer life skills training, educational and vocational support and personal development skills, aim to improve these outcomes.

This review sought to identify studies that included randomized or quasi-randomized control groups to assess the effectiveness of ILPs for young people leaving the care system. Unfortunately, no studies met the criteria for inclusion in the sample. Eighteen studies using non-random, qualitative or one-group longitudinal designs generally showed positive gains by ILP participants. For example, case records that were examined after file closure generally showed positive gains, but were not compared to any control groups. An examination of young people who received follow-up services, compared to those that did not, generally found better outcomes for those who received follow-up, however specific data were not available. Due to the weak methodology of the research on this topic, and in particular the lack of randomized or systematic comparison groups, it is difficult to draw conclusions beyond the observation that youth who chose to participate in ILPs had moderate positive gains. Adverse affects on participants were rare. Further research that incorporates randomized or quasi-randomized designs is greatly needed.

Methodological Notes

This systematic review followed a prescribed and transparent method of retrieving, appraising and synthesizing empirical studies relevant to the research question. This study was vetted by both experts in the field of practice and by experts specializing in data synthesis methodologies. Systematic reviews of existing literature are increasingly being used to evaluate existing research evidence while addressing many of the biases inherent in narrative reviews. 

Systematic reviews differ from narrative reviews because they are more rigorous in information retrieval strategies; they follow an explicit and transparent criteria for appraising the quality of existing research evidence; they attempt to identify and control for different types of bias in existing studies; and they have explicit ways of establishing the comparability (or incomparability) of different studies.