Report Explores How Adolescents Leave Foster Care

Posted February 10, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Age at first admission into foster care and reason for leaving custody

A new study fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion exam­ines the rea­sons that teenagers exit out-of-home care and the vari­ables influ­enc­ing their path.

The report, by the Cen­ter for State Child Wel­fare Data, is based on a review of child wel­fare place­ment records for approx­i­mate­ly 55,000 ado­les­cents nation­wide. It focus­es on young peo­ple who entered fos­ter care in their teens and ana­lyzes the three main rea­sons why they leave. Under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ences,” write the Center’s researchers, is one key to devel­op­ing smart child wel­fare policies.

The top three exit rea­sons iden­ti­fied by the study, Under­stand­ing the Dif­fer­ences in How Ado­les­cents Leave Fos­ter Care, are:

  1. achiev­ing per­ma­nen­cy through adop­tion, guardian­ship or reuni­fi­ca­tion with birth par­ents (61%);
  2. aging out of fos­ter care (14%); and
  3. run­ning away (13%).

These three cat­e­gories are influ­enced by child char­ac­ter­is­tics (age, race/​ethnicity and gen­der), place­ment his­to­ry (type of care and num­ber of moves) and coun­ty char­ac­ter­is­tics (socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus and urban­ic­i­ty), accord­ing to the study.

These find­ings can inform how we approach sys­tems reform around old­er youth in care to increase the like­li­hood that they leave fos­ter care with a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly,” says Jeff Poiri­er, a senior asso­ciate with the Foundation’s Research, Eval­u­a­tion and Data team, which works close­ly with Casey’s Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group and Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tiveSig­nif­i­cant­ly, it also rais­es ques­tions about why young peo­ple run away from care at high rates, which research should fur­ther explore.”

Oth­er key find­ings shared in the report include:

  • As the age at admis­sion to fos­ter care ris­es, so does the prob­a­bil­i­ty a young per­son will run away.
  • Young women are more like­ly to run away from care, while young men are more like­ly to age out of fos­ter care.
  • Black youth are less like­ly to join a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly than white or His­pan­ic youth. Black and His­pan­ic youth are more like­ly to run away from care but less like­ly to age out of care.
  • Teenagers who spent 90% of more of their time in kin­ship care have the high­est per­ma­nen­cy rates.

The report pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to ado­les­cents who run away, do not return to care and whose out­comes are com­plete­ly unknown. This sce­nario, while alarm­ing, has received lit­tle atten­tion. For exam­ple: Report­ing of run­aways is incon­sis­tent across states, and the U.S. Depart­ment of Health Human Ser­vices does not use run­ning away as a met­ric when track­ing the per­for­mance of state child wel­fare systems.

In addi­tion to rec­og­niz­ing ado­les­cence as a unique peri­od of devel­op­ment, the study empha­sizes the het­ero­gene­ity of the teenage years. Exit rea­sons for young peo­ple who enter care at ages 13 and 15 are marked­ly dif­fer­ent,” the report’s authors write, adding that their find­ings high­light the impor­tance of under­stand­ing place­ment out­comes from a devel­op­men­tal stand­point. These base­line dif­fer­ences must be account­ed for when plan­ning ser­vice improvements.”

More broad­ly speak­ing, the report serves us an impor­tant reminder for those work­ing in the child wel­fare field. These data show how impor­tant it is that child wel­fare sys­tems nev­er give up in try­ing to find a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly for teenagers, and how impor­tant it is that teenagers live in fam­i­lies if at all pos­si­ble while they are in fos­ter care,” says Tracey Feild, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group.

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