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Lena Hedin, Örebro University

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Support, obstacles, and challenges on the way to adulthood: A Swedish follow-up study of former foster youth

Introduction: The transition to an independent adult life is an important phase in all young people’s lives, however it has been shown to be even more complex and abrupt for youth in out-of-home care with the risk of being socially excluded (see Stein, 2012; Jackson & Cameron, 2012; Cunningham & Diversi, 2012). The way foster youth manage to pass their teens, whether they stay in care or experience disruptions, is crucial for how they can cope with this transition. An important issue is: what challenges do foster youth meet on the way to adulthood and how do they cope with these, whether they stay in care or not? The presentation is about five former foster youth’s narratives of their ’life course’ from when they as teenagers, 13-16, were placed in a new foster family in 2007-2008.

Aim: The aim of the study was to present an in-depth representation of former foster youth’s experiences of supporting and aggravating circumstances on their way to adulthood, as well as how they understand and cope with these experiences.

Method: The participants were originally recruited in 2008 through social workers in seven municipalities in Sweden (see Hedin, 2012). In the last follow-up study just these five participated of the original group of 17. Four years had passed since the last interview and most of the young people had left foster care and was hard to reach. Data derives mainly from the third interview session in 2013, when they were 19-21, but also review their previous interviews in 2008 and 2009 (a follow-up study) in retrospect.

Methods were interwiews, network maps and text responses (’beepers’). The interviews were non-standardized, low-structured, and focused. In the last interview session in 2013 the focus was, like in previous interviews, on the young people’s everyday life – on housing, education/work, health, formal and informal relationships, access to support, in their present situation as well as in the interval since the last interview – and on their thoughts about their past and future. The network map of significant others clarified the strength and quality of the young people’s relationships with significant others. Text messages via mobile phone (‘beepers’) were used to capture their here-and-now situation – what they are actually doing at specific times, where they are, with whom, and how it feels.

Findings: The young people had a prolonged transition to adulthood with disturbances related to obstacles in their school situation, despite educational improvements after placement in their teens, obvious in the first interview in 2008. Still, they all expose some personal agency in finding ways to go on, among them the public resource to restart studying as an adult. They all retrospectively see the benefits they have achieved in the foster family, even despite breakdowns of placement: as a steady base when needed, or just as a construction of a ’good family’ that they keep in mind The narratives also expose the importance of social workers and what demands to be seen as ’a god social worker’. After leaving care these youth are satisfied with the support from the social services. Facebook plays a crucial role in keeping relations alive. Overcoming challenges on their own is a vital part of some narratives, in which increased maturity and a strengthened self-confidence become the outcome. Some young people even wanted these challenges to try themselves.

Conclusions: These cases provide an in-depth understanding of some youth’s lived experiences on their way to adulthood with the potential to bring useful knowledge to practicians. In this process from being teenagers to adulthood is pointed out the young people’s agency and capacity to mature through challenges as well as their vulnerability and need of both trust and support.

Key references
Cunningham, M.J. & Diversi, M. (2012). Aging out: Youths’ perspectives on foster care and the transition to independence. Qualitative Social Work, 12 (5), 587-602.

Hedin, L. (2012). Foster youth´s sense of belonging in kinship, network and traditional foster families. An interactive perspective on foster youth´s everyday life. Dissertation. Örebro Studies in Social Work 10, Örebro University.

Jackson, S. & Cameron, C. (2012). Leaving care: Looking ahead and aiming higher. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 1107-1114.

Stein, M. (2012). Young People Leaving Care. Supporting pathways to adulthood. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Keywords: leaving care, foster youth, narratives, support, challenges