A critical review of qualitative research into the experiences of young adults leaving foster care services

This paper qualitatively analyses children and young people's narratives (drawn from nine studies) of their experiences of transitions from care to independent living.

  • Sarah Parry and Stephen Weatherhead
  • Journal of Children's Services, Volume 9, (2014)

While the findings should not be over-generalised, this meta-synthesis provides insight into transition experiences to inform policy and practice, particularly around mental health. It includes studies from the UK, the USA and Spain. Three themes emerged:

1. Navigation and resilience - an interrelated process

Some young people described building resilience - "constructing their life stories as testimonies of survival against all odds" (Samuels and Pryce, 2008). Others contended with "getting lost in the system" and not developing key resiliencies - multiple moves and losses were cited in all studies. When resilience was diminished, so was the care leaver's ability to navigate their way successfully through the system.

Care leavers suggested the following helped navigate an often irregular and unpredictable system:

  • Developing a safety net and making the most of resources available
  • Helping others - seeing themselves as a responsible adult and not repeating the cycle which left them in care
  • Achieving a good balance between independence and dependence
  • Working and studying as a method of moving forward from their care identity
  • Having a sense of humour
  • Positively reframing negative experiences - as making them who they are today
  • Being proud of their achievements.

2. Psychological impact of survival

Many young people spoke of feeling as though they needed to be constantly vigilant within their placement resulting in an "extreme survivalist self-reliance" perspective (Samuels and Pryce, 2008). These young people struggled to ask for help when they needed it, rendering them increasingly vulnerable through the transition process.

The lack of a safety net in the form of a nuclear family meant that young people had to adopt an emotional independence too advanced for their developmental stage, forcing them to "grow up faster than they would like" (Hines et al, 2005). Misconstrued as self-sufficiency, they often forfeited care they were entitled to, meaning additional offers of help were not made. This was underpinned by a wish to evidence independence to avoid being further let down by others.

Complex identity struggles were identified as young people faced transition, leading some to hide their care identity. These included feeling different or superior to their non care-experienced peers; or like a victim, survivor or fighter. Becoming a quick learner and being adaptable regarding their social identity were described as necessary.

3. Complex relationships - growing, nurturing and keeping new roots in old and new soil

Despite fractured early relationships, many had a clear idea of what family meant - a consistency between family, home and belonging - and where this was not found, relationships were more difficult. When participants were able to reconnect to their families after transition, former rejection continued to affect emotional adjustment.

From those who experienced emotionally successful foster placements, love and explicit familial ties were mentioned more often, including relationships with the wider foster family. Some participants managed to maintain contact and seek support from their foster mothers, professionals and biological parents, while positive friendships offered practical as well as emotional support. However, offers of friendship could also render young people vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they had little choice but to accept an offer of accommodation: "I don't have nowhere else to go, so might as well go with you" (Sala-Roca et al, 2012).

The complex nature of loss resulted in some participants blaming themselves for the abuse or rejection they had suffered, leaving them confused about relationships in general. Grieving a loss - and missed opportunities for grieving - exacerbated distress and was a common theme of the studies.

Implications for practice

The themes within the findings build on existing research into the psychological impact of transitions. Recommendations include:

  • A well-informed and consistent attachment figure must be provided - the personal advisor may fulfil this role.
  • Practitioners need to try and prevent multiple challenges occurring at one time - well-planned pathways and timely and sufficient support for housing, financial management and life skills can promote the interrelated effect of resilience and positive navigation found in this review.
  • Fostering hope and nurturing resilience through working with the young person and their system are key roles for mental health services.
  • Access to therapeutic services around acceptance and the option to support others in care may help.
  • Psychological services need to be systematically offered to practitioners, carers and young people themselves to help prevent discord within services and care environments.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.


Related resources:

  • What works in preventing and treating poor mental health in looked after children?
  • The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data
  • The Hidden Cost of Foster-Care: New Evidence on the Inter-Generational Transmission of Foster-Care Experiences

Related resources by Research in Practice:

  • Contact: Making good decisions for children in public law: Frontline Briefing
  • Assessing and supporting family and friends care: Practice Tool
  • Making the right choices for children in care: Leaders' Briefing
  • Care leaver transitions: Strategic Briefing

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on foster care. Click here for more

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