Study Evaluates ‘Resilience’ in Transition-age Foster Youth, Claims Non-whites More Resilient

A new report claims that “non-white race” adolescents showed higher resilience in the foster care system as they approached the age of emancipation. Many foster youth face challenges transitioning into independent adults. These challenges are related to difficult experiences in childhood and lack of adequate resources, resulting in dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. The study attempts to explore the success stories among these high-risk youth–those who circumvent the challenges and dysfunction, which the report defines as resilience.

The study, first published online in July 2015, was recently printed in the February 2016 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health. It aimed to highlight factors that may contribute to overall resilience functioning in foster youth so that interventions and programing may be tailored to focus on the behaviors that promote competence and self-sufficiency.

Svetlana Shpiegel studied 351 youth in foster care reaching the age of emancipation–those who will age out of the system–and all of the supports that come with it. Shpiegel examined risk factors such as drug use and teenage pregnancy, and protective factors, such as intelligence and supportive adults, that contributed to difficulties and successes in transitioning out of foster care.

In Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s largest child welfare system and homeless population, the results come at an opportune time. As of October 2015, there were 21,000 children in foster care, and of those who age out, 50 percent will end up homeless or incarcerated shortly after emancipation. Shpiegel’s study seeks to provide insight on the success stories of foster youth who did not end up homeless, incarcerated or engaged in other risky behavior, as a means to assist in the development of foster care intervention programs.

Resilience in the study was measured through a composite score of six domains: “educational attainment, and avoidance of teen pregnancy, homelessness, mental illness, substance use and criminal involvement.” Understandably, if participants were able to stay in school, avoid risky behaviors such as drug use or teenage pregnancy and have geographical stability both through having housing and remaining in the same school, youth were more likely to make better decisions as adults including obtaining employment, housing and potentially further education. This resilience was significantly lessened if the youth experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse or “placement instability,” referring to the lack of geographic continuity in housing and school.

When risk factors such as abuse and mental illness, and protective factors such as positive outlook and school engagement, were controlled, both males and females showed equal resilience.

The more controversial conclusion of the study was that, with the same controls in place, it seems that “non-white race” children (in this case predominantly black children) were more likely to be resilient than their white peers, which the study acknowledges is “an interesting finding, as minority youths are often portrayed as particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes.”

Dion Tillman, a community worker at the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), expresses skepticism about the study.

“Children are automatically resilient,” Tillman said. “They want to get past the trauma, no matter what their ethnicity.”

Tillman understands this first-hand, having grown up in the system. After spending years in gangs, seeking a community and belonging, Tillman found himself a ward of the foster care system.

“Gangbangers are always [exposed to] trauma,” he said. “It’s trauma that impedes the process [of rehabilitation and growth].”

But Tillman credits removal from the situation as what allowed him to flourish into the married, successful professional he is today.

DCFS serves youth about to be emancipated through its Individualized Transition Skills Program, which focuses on cooking, cleaning, seeking employment and finding funding for college, among other skills related to self-sufficiency. The program can offer support through DCFS until age 21.

Tillman does agree, though, with the risk-factor indicators of the study. Teenage pregnancy, drug use and criminal activity are the largest contributors to a young person’s inability to become a successful adult, he said.


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Victoria Rocha is a candidate for a Master of Public Administration degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the school’s Media for Policy Change course.

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