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Chicago Professor Shares Findings From Foster Youth Study

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One of the largest studies ever to document the experiences of youth as they age out of the foster system continues to provide insights on their housing and service needs four years after the initial results were published.

The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth was published in 2010 by Mark Courtney, Ph.D., M.S.W., professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago, along with colleagues from the Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago; the University of Wisconsin Survey Center; and child welfare agencies in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The study followed more than 700 former foster children in the Midwest through their 26th birthday.

Dr. Courtney discussed the study and its findings with author Bridget M. Kuehn.

Ms. Kuehn: What prompted you and your colleagues to conduct the study?
Dr. Courtney: It was a follow up to a previous study I had done in Wisconsin before the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 was passed. That law required states to track outcomes of former foster youth and doubled the amount of funding available for states to provide transitional housing to youth. The state welfare directors of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa wanted to know what happened to foster youth aging out of the system in this new era of more funding.

Ms. Kuehn: Based on your results, how common is homelessness among former foster youth?
Dr. Courtney: Between 31% and 46% of study participants had been homeless at least once by age 26.

Ms. Kuehn: Does extending foster care to age 21 help?
Dr. Courtney: Yes, it delays a first episode of homelessness but does not prevent it altogether. If you look at data from Illinois, which extended foster care through age 21, you see reduced homelessness up to age 21, but by age 23 there is no difference in rates of homelessness among former foster children in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Iowa. There are risks associated with homelessness. It is less risky to be homeless after 21 than at a younger age. Extending foster care also gives youth more time to learn the skills they need to become economically self-sufficient.

Ms. Kuehn: What did you learn about different subgroups of foster children?
Dr. Courtney: Running away while in foster care, greater placement instability, being male, having a history of physical abuse, engaging in more delinquent behaviors, and having symptoms of a mental health disorder were associated with an increase in the relative risk of becoming homeless.

Ms. Kuehn: What did you learn about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth?
Dr. Courtney: They make up between 11% and 15% of the youth in our study, depending on the age at which we asked them (at age 26, about 15% said they identified as mostly heterosexual but somewhat attracted to people of the same sex, bisexual, or mostly homosexual but somewhat attracted to people of the opposite sex). LGBT youth had somewhat more placement instability while in care and were more economically vulnerable as young adults. They were more likely than youth who identified as heterosexual to report not having enough money to pay for rent or having gone hungry. They earned less on an hourly basis than their heterosexual peers.

Ms. Kuehn: Are there other findings from the Midwest Study that may help service providers to better meet the needs of youth transitioning out of foster care?
Dr. Courtney: The combination of findings suggests that those providing services to youth still in foster care should focus on better addressing youths’ mental and behavioral health problems in order to reduce the risk of future homelessness.

Ms. Kuehn: What are the next steps for this research? Is an update planned?
Dr. Courtney: We are not collecting any new data. We are trying to use our existing data to assess the number of times youth were homeless and for how long. General research on homelessness shows that repeated homelessness is associated with a greater risk of being victimized, for example.

Ms. Kuehn: What are the key messages for housing service providers from the Midwest Study?
Dr. Courtney: Those service providers need to account for the significant mental and behavioral health challenges facing these young people as a result of their trauma histories. Services for young parents and their children are also important, given how many foster youth become parents at an early age. About half of the young women are mothers by age 21.

Access the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth report at the University of Chicago.

This article was originally published to highlight the March 2015 theme of Youth Homelessness. Learn more about how homelessness and housing impacts behavioral health. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 10/24/2022