Supporting Foster Youth and Their Family Connections: Policy and Practice Recommendations

In this study, a research team from UCLA learned directly from the youngest generation of foster youth transitioning into adulthood about the issues facing them personally and in relation to their family connections. We heard about issues that impacted them during childhood in the foster care system, what could have made their experiences and relationships healthier, and what supports and resources could still help them rebuild those relationships if they are interested in doing so.

The information described in this research brief is important because it is informed by participants’ lived experiences and was gathered in a trauma-informed environment that valued youth agency and autonomy. In order to improve the lives of individual youth and their family connections, people working with foster children must seek authentic youth engagement, prioritizing their voices at every stage of case planning, program development, and system reform.

The Approach

This educational resource is based on a qualitative participatory action research methodology called Photovoice. By giving youth a chance to tell their stories through autonomous and personal ways, Photovoice empowers them to use their creative expression to build public awareness and inform policy. It uses photography and analytical discussions to examine issues of concern to a particular population and helps participants brainstorm and advocate for relevant policy changes. The current research brought together seven Transition Aged Youth (TAY), ages 18-23, to develop their photography skills, personal narrative development, and critical thinking through eight group meetings. Participants photographed situations that reflected their current lives and challenges as well as what they remembered about their foster care experience, then met in groups to discuss the photographs and their responses to them. This resource presents suggested solutions to the youths’ identified challenges.

Summary of Recommendations

To support their transition to adulthood, Transition Aged Youth need system actors like judges, attorneys, social workers, case managers, and other practitioners to:

  • Implement and enforce policies to protect youth, encourage their autonomy, and respect their decisions and privacy .
  • Provide more tailored support and opportunities for meaningful connection between youth and families • Ensure youth’s mental health and well-being is prioritized and supported — and that they can feel like normal kids and teens
  • Work to destigmatize foster care and foster kids

Identified Issues, in Detail

Personal Impacts

Members of the research collective identified a variety of personal impacts of involvement in the child welfare system. The study participants, or TAY, reported feelings of instability, confusion, and isolation while in care. They reported not knowing what resources were available to them both during and after care and not having access to needed resources while in care. Some reported that foster parents spent funds received for the youth on themselves. As a result, TAY reported feeling behind their peers, not being able to engage in normal youth milestones and activities, including joining a sports team, participating in extracurricular activities, or getting a driver’s license.

While in care, TAY reported receiving a lot of attention from well-meaning system actors and also their peers, who noticed that they were frequently taken out of class for meetings with case workers, counselors, and other professionals. They said it felt like everyone knew their private business and they felt stigmatized for being in foster care, as if they were being viewed as “bad kids.” This is particularly problematic because, generally, these young people were removed from family situations in which they were victimized.

TAY reported that being involved in the child welfare system felt dehumanizing. They often felt like they were treated as a case file instead of as an individual with distinct views, wishes, and needs. At a young age, they were exposed to emergency responders, judges, attorneys, etc., with minimal explanation and little to no emotional support. As a result, many now struggle with developing and maintaining interpersonal trust, suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, and remain unsure of where and with whom they belong.


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