Foster Youth Show Extreme Optimism in Face of Seemingly Great Challenge

By Anna Maier

New research shows that California teenagers in foster care display a surprising optimism about their future, despite the many challenges they face.

“In general young people [aging out of foster care] tend to be pretty optimistic, in that sense I don’t think they differ much from their peers,” said Mark Courtney, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and director of the CalYOUTH study.

Initial findings from the CalYOUTH study reveal that almost all of the foster youth surveyed, 89 percent, felt optimistic when thinking about their hopes and goals for the future. The survey revealed several factors that may help teenagers in foster care to stay positive. These findings come at an important time, since California is one of the first—and largest—states to experiment with extending foster care services to age 21.

The CalYOUTH study follows a group of over 700 17-year-old California foster youth until age 21. Baseline survey findings were released in December 2014. Over half of the teenagers surveyed, 69 percent, reported feeling “very optimistic” when asked to think about their personal hopes and goals for the future, while 29 percent felt “fairly optimistic.”  The participants were also hopeful about their future educational goals. The majority of youth, 80 percent, wanted to pursue a college degree or higher, while 74 percent felt they could actually achieve this goal.

These findings might seem astonishing coming from young people without a stable home life, many of whom experience educational, health and criminal justice challenges. However, the CalYOUTH survey identified several supportive factors that might help to nurture resilience within this population.

Almost all of the youth in the sample, 92 percent, reported that they had an adult in their lives, aside from a caseworker, whom they could go to for advice or emotional support. In fact, more than two-thirds of youth reported that they had two or more people from whom they could seek emotional support, tangible support and advice or guidance about the future. Most CalYOUTH participants felt satisfied with the quality of support they received and generally felt that they received “enough” support. The most commonly identified support figures were friends, siblings and foster parents.

Nearly half of the teenagers surveyed also reported having a romantic partner who is supportive, expresses love and affection and listens them. In general, two-thirds felt “very happy” in their relationship, while an additional quarter were “fairly happy.”

Finally, the majority of CalYOUTH participants felt prepared to achieve their education goals and manage their mental and physical health, while two-thirds felt prepared to achieve their employment goals. Housing was the largest area of concern, with 16 percent of youth feeling unprepared to find housing.

The CalYOUTH results are not the first to show a sense of optimism among foster youth. The Midwest Study, which followed young people from Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin as they transitioned from foster care to independent adulthood, found that 91 percent of the foster youth surveyed felt “very” or “fairly” optimistic about their future despite markedly adverse childhood experiences.

“Some adolescents feel that adversity has made them stronger,” Courtney said.

Anna Maier is a graduate student of public policy at the U.C. Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. She wrote this story while enrolled in the Goldman School’s Journalism for Social Change class.

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