Behind the Stats: Mark Courtney on His Newest Study on Transition-Age Foster Youth in California

Mark Courtney and other researchers at Chapin Hall have just released the third installment in their study tracking outcomes of youth transitioning to adulthood in California in wake of the federal Fostering Connections Act, which extended foster care eligibility from age 18 to 21.

Earlier this summer, Mark Courtney and his team at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released the latest installment in his most recent longitudinal study, the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH).

Conducted in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the County Welfare Directors Association of California, CalYOUTH is a five-year research project that examining the impact of California’s implementation of the Fostering Connections to Success Act. Known as AB 12 in California, the law extended foster care in the state to age 21 in 2012.

Mark E. Courtney is a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Since then, Courtney and other researchers have surveyed about 700 transition-age foster youth about their experiences in care and outcomes during the transition to adulthood for foster youth, such as employment, education and health. During the first two waves, the survey queried youth at ages 17 and 19. The most recent report collects information about a cohort of youth at age 21, the first time the project has assessed their life after care.

California is one of 45 states that currently provide some form of extended foster care to youth who choose to remain in care until their 21st birthday. Courtney’s survey work and a host of related briefs hope to shed light on how the experience of extended foster care in California has been working and what lessons policymakers can draw to improve outcomes for youth.

Courtney talked at length with The Chronicle of Social Change about the findings of his recent survey, including why we should pay more attention to vocational certification program for foster youth, why employment efforts have lagged behind educational initiatives for transition-age foster youth and why most statistics on the graduation rates of foster youth are wrong.

What jumped out to you as you gathered data on foster youth in California for the third time, now age 21?

In general, these findings confirm my earlier findings. We need to be concerned about these young people. On average, they’re not doing as well as their peers. That’s not surprising. I don’t think we should attribute that to foster care causing that, but since you have an extended foster care program in California, the fact that many of these young people aren’t working despite the fact they want to work is a cause for concern.

Almost half of them have gone to college, but very few of them have gotten a degree by age 21. It means we still have work to do in terms of supporting the post-secondary education transitions of these young people.

One of the things that jumps out at me on the education side is the percentage of these people who report having a vocational credential of some kind.

If you look at the young people [currently] enrolled at school, the vast majority are in a two- or four-year college: 60 percent of them are in two-year college, and 21 percent are in a four-year college. But 8.6 percent are in a technical school. That doesn’t sound like much.

But if you look at what kind of diplomas these young people are actually earning, one fifth of these young people have a vocational job training or license. That really jumps out at me because of the folks who have gone to college, very few have a degree. Only four percent have a two- or four-year degree. And you don’t expect a four-year degree by 21, but given the very large percentage of them that went to a two-year college at some point, the fact that almost none of them have associate’s degrees is cause for concern. That’s a little hard to reconcile that with the fact that one fifth of these young people have a vocational job training license or certificate of some kind.

They may not actually be going to get two-year degrees and going on to get a four year. They’re getting a vocational training because they want to go out and work with that. That’s something we need to pay attention to. A lot of folks nationally who are pushing for post-secondary education for these young people are really focused on college degrees, but five times as many of these youth have a vocational job training certificate at age 21 as have any type of college degree.

The other statistic I’d draw your attention to on the education side is the fact that 84 percent of these young people have a high school diploma or equivalent like the GED. That really is in contrast to the statistic that gets thrown out there a lot, which is the high school completion rate. Sometimes people have statistics — I don’t know where they get them — that less than half or only half of them graduate from high school. That’s just not true. They don’t graduate maybe by their 18th birthday. If you go out to 21, you’ve got less than one fifth of them who don’t have a high school equivalent. That’s still a lot.

Though it will hardly come as a surprise to many advocates, you found that California has a substantial number of foster youth who are parents by age 21.

A third of these young people and two-fifths of the females have a child by the age of 21. I think that’s something that is a way bigger issue for the extended foster care part of the child welfare enterprise than it is for the care of minors.

Having a child gets in the way of school so you’re not continuing your education. Second, you’ve got to balance the demands of working with being a parent. A young person with the same skills but without the obligations of parenting which can get in the way of work, getting to work, you’re tired because you’re taking care of a child when you get home; those things can get in the way of employment. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have children. I’m just saying for this population, so many of them having a child at an early age that it gets in the way of accumulating human capital.

California has put a lot of thought into supporting young parents, not taking every opportunity to intervene and separate them from the children when there’s a challenge that the parent’s having. In fact, we don’t have a huge percentage of them who are dependents. For example, we have 155 young women in our study who had children, but only 17 of those women had a child who was a dependent of the court.

A lot of times, I hear people say things like, “We have this intergenerational pattern of child maltreatment.” Certainly that’s true. There’s lots of evidence that people who have been subjected to maltreatment and people in care, who have overwhelmingly been exposed to neglect and some of them have been exposed to physical and sexual abuse. But our [CalYOUTH] data suggests that the vast majority of youth who have children, those children are not being taken away from them and put into foster care. It’s still an elevated rate compared to the general population, but most of them are parenting their children safely.

You found that about 57 percent of foster youth were employed at age 21, one of several areas where foster youth lag behind youth in the general population in terms of employment. Where can the child welfare field step in to support better employment outcomes for transition-age youth? 

During early adulthood, you certainly want work experience. You don’t want to be 22, 23, and you’ve been to college, but you’re never had a job. But there’s just aspects of behavior associated with the workforce, that’s it’s good for you to practice at an early age.

We find in our data, and with other people who study labor market outcomes in early adulthood, people who have work experience before they were 18 is important … [G]etting that work education at an early age, in and of itself matters — even controlling for education, social support and reading ability.

The child welfare system doesn’t always make that easy to do. The child welfare system can create obstacles to young people to getting work experience while they’re in care. I think we’ve gotten better in recent years in terms of not getting in the way of normative experiences for young people in foster care but we still have a way to go.

In California, there’s been a lot of attention paid to boosting the educational outcomes of foster youth in secondary education. But has the same attention been paid to the employment side?

I just had a conversation about this with some D.C. advocates [saying that] I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that our policy at the federal level up until very recently for transition-age youth was so focused on education. For one, that’s normative for middle-class parents. In other words, Congresspeople, they tell all their kids to go to school. And in California, you’ve had college success programs for years now, a big focus on education, which I think is entirely appropriate.

But one quarter of these young people tell us consistently across interview waves, “You know, I don’t really want to go to college. I haven’t done so well in school. It’s not really been that good for me. I want to get a job, I want to get a trade.’” And we really haven’t done that much at all with that in the child welfare system.

We put this law [AB 12] into effect without doing anything for employment, engage the young people and say, “Hey, would you like to work? By the way, even if you go to school, you’re going to have to work someday. It’s a good idea to have some work experience. Let’s get you some.” It seems like we’re just not doing that.

There seems like there is very limited body of literature on the effectiveness of employment programs for foster youth. Why do you think this is the case? Another example of the more middle-class orientation of some policymakers?

We don’t have a lot of evidence of the effectiveness of youth employment programs, by youth I mean older adolescents and young adults generally, in the general population. The evidence around that is not good. I was on the National Academy of Sciences consensus panel on the health and well-being of young adults, and the economist on our panel, Harry Holzer, who is one of the foremost labor economists studying youth employment, said there’s not really much out there that’s been shown to be effective from a programmatic standpoint for increasing the likelihood that youth will have a job or that they’ll earn more money or find persistent employment.

So it isn’t just that we don’t have good evidence for foster youth, we don’t have great evidence for youth in the general population. In fairness to folks that are developing programs for foster youth, they don’t have a lot of evidence-based programs to work with. The other reason, though, is that the foster care system, up until fairly recently, wasn’t organized at all … around the well-being of youth in care.

It was organized around the safety and legal permanency, which at best would be manifested placement stability. “We want to keep you safe, from getting abused, that’s why we took you away from your parents.”

But actually focusing the attention on the how young people are doing in school, we’ve only done that pretty recently. And around employment, that wasn’t something we’re looking at. There have been procedures and policies and practices of folks in the child welfare system that got in the way of young people getting jobs.

If you’re a foster parent and the county agency wants you to take in teenagers, just getting them to employment is tough. A lot of these foster parents, they’re not keen on doing that. Nor are they expected to do that. The social worker from the foster care agency is not telling them, “We’re going to hold you accountable, as a foster parent, for really facilitating this young person getting work experience.”

If you’re in that system, and the system is not holding you accountable — whether you’re a county agency, or private not-for-profit foster family agency, caseworker or foster parent — for making sure that youth have employment opportunities and get some work experience, big surprise that we don’t have a track record of doing that.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

If you want to learn more about the study, you can attend a free webinar on the CalYOUTH study put on by John Burton Advocates for Youth on August 7.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 277 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.