The current study elicited feedback from young adults age 18 or over currently or formerly in foster care in Maryland to learn what they perceive as factors that impede and facilitate meaningful and effective engagement and support in meeting self-identified goals while in foster care, often from when they were young children. We also sought recommendations for how court engagement may improve experiences and outcomes for youth involved in care. While our questions focused on the courts, respondents told us that engaging with a variety of child welfare stakeholders was important, and that their ability to survive and thrive within and beyond foster care and into adulthood depended on their own efforts combined with support from these systems and/or particular professional stakeholders. Our detailed findings follow the methods below.
Study Design and Sample
To elicit youth perspectives on experiences in foster care, this study employed features of grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2014). More specifically, we used a phenomenological approach to learn how respondents understood their own experiences; a constant comparative approach to data collection and analysis; and sought description and theory-generation as products for our analysis. The study was designed and carried out by the authors who served as the PI and research assistant, respectively, in consultation with the Maryland Foster Care Court Improvement Program [FCCIP]. The study received [University] Institutional Review Board approval.
The FCCIP disseminated a recruitment flyer via email to attorneys representing children and youth in foster care, Maryland’s Department of Human Services Foster Care Ombudsman, and all local Departments of Human Services. The flyer invited interested young adults aged 18 and over who were engaged with foster care or had exited care within the past five years to contact the PI. Participation consisted of a one-time semi-structure interview, conducted virtually as dictated by state and [University] COVID-19 guidelines. While our questions focused on engagement with the courts, we asked what services or supports respondents would like to see more generally and what advice they would give to other youth in care. We also invited respondents to share any other information that they deemed relevant to their experiences in foster care or with the courts. The study was confidential; all names that we use in this article are pseudonyms chosen by respondents. Interviews conducted by the authors lasted approximately 30-70 minutes and were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. All respondents received a $20 electronic gift card as compensation for their time.
Respondent ages ranged from 18-25. For sample demographics on gender, racial/ethnic identity, and time in foster care see Table 1. Respondents were from rural, suburban, and urban areas statewide from ten of Maryland’s 23 counties:
[TABLE 1 HERE]
We analyzed the data to generate descriptive analysis of respondents’ perceptions (Sandelowski, 2000). We sought to identify what factors impeded and facilitated meaningful court engagement and other facets of their child welfare trajectories. We used Maguire and Delahunt’s (2017) five-step thematic analysis process.
Initially, we immersed ourselves in the transcripts while listening to the corresponding audio-recordings or video-recordings, taking audio or written notes about our emergent understanding. Next, we coded one sample transcript, selected for its richness, to generate initial codes. Codes were created using participants' own words (in vivo codes), such as “tick tock” and “when you’re in foster care,” when possible. We then met to review and create a consensus coding scheme. In Step 3, we applied our consensus coding scheme to all interviews and looked for patterns, discontinuities, and overarching themes within the data. In step 4, we reviewed the codes and sorted them by theme to develop a larger picture. In the final step, we refined and re-sorted the codes and themes through the process of writing.
To enhance the trustworthiness of the research, we engaged in weekly or bi-weekly debriefing during data collection and data analysis, actively searched for disconfirming evidence to test our emerging interpretation, and retained an audit trail (Padgett, 2016). Use of the constant comparative method of conducting data analysis while engaged in data collection also allowed us to conduct in member-checking, testing our emerging understanding of the data as we continued to collect data in later interviews (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
The overarching message from youth in our sample was that the professional child welfare stakeholders and institutions play a crucial mediating role in respondents’ experiences with foster care. Their potential impact was dynamic, varying with age and developmental stage of the youth. The role that the courts, specifically, played in the lives of respondents also seemed to be both cause and effect of implicit and explicit messages that youth received from the court and other stakeholders. In other words, perceived openness and support from the bench had a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationship with youth engagement. In the following subsections, we expound on each theme.
“When you’re in foster care…”: The Ongoing Context for Youth in Foster Care
Respondents shared the many emotional, bureaucratic, social, and educational challenges that they had faced. Many entered foster care with trauma and little support. These challenges were sometimes compounded by court interactions and feelings of lack of control or transparency. Several respondents reported that child welfare professionals assumed that youth are incapable of making decisions or saw them as troublemakers. Distrust and troubled communication were exacerbated by challenges that flowed from their age and developmental stage, as well as troubled relationships with court stakeholders, families of origin, and foster families. Kay’s “traumatizing” encounter in the courts was when she was called to be a witness regarding “accusations that my mom was abusing me, which she was.” Kay described herself as “an angry child who was kind of pawned all over the place.” This experience left a lasting impact, “they pretty much just ate me alive on the stand and you can't really prepare a 13 year old for that, especially an angry non-understanding 13 year old.” Kay’s explanation is instructive of how children who are victims of abuse and neglect by adults in their lives may come into systems that fail to respond with understanding.
...as a kid, when basically your whole entire life, all you know, is crashing, it creates behavioral issues. So there was a lot of lashing out. So they painted this picture to the court that I was this juvenile delinquent essentially and I was just destructive and self-destructive and explosive, which granted, I was. So I didn't feel like I had anybody in my corner at 13.
Kay’s helplessness and fear were magnified by her sense that nobody was interested in her perspective or wellbeing. She sees a major barrier to youth engagement as “trying to get grown adults with authority to listen to kids with behavioral issues.”
Four respondents indicated that race or ethnicity played a role in their foster care or court experience. Sierra said that having a Black caseworker was central to her ability to process her own experiences as a Black woman. Virginia always worried how she would fare in court and in care: “I’m Black so it’s just like a pre-existing fear I would say. Kind of like you automatically, almost like you automatically think…oh my god, whatever could happen I know I might just get the worst instead of the best.” Kay believed that she was treated better because she was a white woman; when she advocated for herself in court, the judge called her “feisty” and “said she could see me being in her place.” Kay reflected “If I was a Black male, I probably would have not been received as well as I was.” On the other hand, Ivania noted that child welfare service’s prioritization of matching her with a Hispanic foster family to maintain her linguistic heritage hampered rather than helped her, due to a mismatch around the family’s ability to support educational aspirations that she prioritized. While most respondents did not bring up race and ethnicity or believed it was a factor when we asked directly, these four saw it as an important influence on the way they were treated as youth in care.
Respondents also described instability due to frequent moves and the isolation and “otherness” that they experienced as children for whom “regular” childhood activities such as sleepovers with friends and driving lessons are complicated by heightened oversight and bureaucratic processes. Despite additional challenges, most respondents overcame miscommunication and limited voice, finding or creating opportunities to speak up and shape their own trajectory through foster care and into emerging adulthood.
Change and Continuity
Frequent changes feature strongly in respondents’ experience of foster care. They attributed the majority of disruptions that they experienced to inconsistencies in people involved in their cases (e.g. magistrates, caseworkers, and lawyers) and frequent moves between various foster and group homes. Because respondents already faced challenges that precipitated and stemmed from their involvement in foster care, such changes compounded their difficulties and stress. Genesis found it "problematic” to continually adjust to “changing caseworkers like I was changing underwear,” requiring her to re-orient each new stakeholder:
I would always ask my caseworker, “Are you staying for a while? Because I don't want to open up about something and then you're not here tomorrow.” And then it’s like now I got to explain the same situation to another worker.
Her wariness (and weariness) of sharing impeded Genesis’s ability to interact and engage. Changes also tarnish youths’ perceptions of court productivity: “if you get a judge that’s not familiar with your case, most of it's just hearsay from the files, and…the odds of it being successful are way up in the air.”
Respondents indicated that judicial continuity allowed for the court to serve as a coordinating hub, and where other child welfare stakeholders could both be held accountable and brainstorm about their specific cases. Jade strategically raised concerns in open court:
I wanted to bring it up in court to see, because then it was like they would need to have an answer...: I'm hearing it from such and such and I want to know if they actually do this, that you have those resources, what's out there for me?”
Consistent adult stakeholders helped respondents develop better relationships, communicate more openly, and promoted greater trust generally and in relation to the court. Having the same judge was especially important to Sierra in light of frequent turnover over other stakeholders, whose judge “was the only constant thing throughout my time in foster care. And everything else changed; social workers changed, lawyers changed. But my judge was the same the entire time. She actually did a good job at protecting.”
Consistency also fostered familiarity; Sierra said that when she was anxious or uncomfortable, her judge “noticed that and tried her best to be supportive.” Likewise, consistent and meaningful relationships with lawyers and caseworkers supported respondents’ self-advocacy and sense of protection. Jade said of her attorney:
She always encouraged me to speak up about things because I know that I was very timid my first time in the courts but after years of doing it, I just realized that being your own advocate is the best and also just being able to utilize what resources or help is there in the court like your lawyer, your social worker, your judge, all of them are there to support you and help you.
Jade’s close relationship helped her attorney be a better advocate: “I often ask my questions one-on-one and my attorney definitely spoke on my behalf to the judge.”
Together with the advantages of consistency noted above, some respondents acknowledged the benefits of changes, especially when previous or current stakeholders were ineffective, unresponsive, or a poor fit. Amber found it “nice having new judges and magistrates pop in every once in a while because they could have a new perspective on the case.” For others, changes in judges, magistrates, and other court members had little impact on their engagement. When asked to compare between her two judges, Barbie felt that “they were all the same...no difference.” Echoing similar sentiments, Jeffrey, who also had two different judges, noted how “they all got the same job practically so I wouldn’t mind [the changes].”
Overall, it appears that frequent changes often had a negative impact on respondents’ foster care trajectories, while occasional or limited changes may give rise to new opportunities or relationships. Consistency in judicial decision-makers seemed especially important for youth who lacked consistency with other stakeholders or in other parts of their lives. Likewise, consistent caseworkers and lawyers were a source of meaningful relationships with a caring adult who supported respondents’ abilities to self-advocate and intervened on their behalf.
Respondents noted the importance of attending to children’s developmental stages and their unique personalities and interactional styles. James was initially shy and felt alienated by the courts, caseworkers, and an abusive foster home. The combination of moving to a safer living situation and finding a supportive caseworker changed things for him. His new caseworker “reached out” and told him “hey, you can speak your mind and everything, we want to know what's going on with you and how to make you more comfortable and how to improve things.” This also coincided with James’ maturity, “when I was older and I could finally speak for myself, and I was more independent and stuff. Things were just a lot better. It was just a lot easier.” James felt most heard in court:
I always felt that I was [maybe] ‘number one priority’... [and] like I was important, like I could be heard...Especially when the magistrate also liked me and is very, very friendly. [When] I was a kid...it was a little scary. But as I've gotten older it just got more and more comfortable. And my support system would grow and grow and grow.
Respondents underscored their positive experiences with age-appropriate communication and transparency about the foster care system. Conversely, lack of communication impeded respondents’ ability to engage with the courts, for example, when they were not informed about hearings or when they were not provided an opportunity to speak up.
Respondents emphasized the need for all child welfare stakeholders to adapt communication so as to invite input, especially when children and youth feel shy or intimidated. Tiffany often felt too intimated to speak openly in court, even when given the opportunity:
I was always nervous to talk to a judge. ‘Cause I’m like you are this so high and mighty powerful person. If I say any wrong thing to you and it’s, man, my ass is grass. So I just get so nervous I didn’t know what to say, I’d just agree like ‘yes sir, yes ma’am. I don’t know I’m just going to agree with you.’
Ivania also underscored the need to provide opportunities for private communication. She was uncomfortable being the subject of discussion in open court as a 10-year old who “[didn’t] like having attention on me.” She described an incident when her foster mother spoke to her inappropriately, explaining that courts “need to pry it out of children, I think, because for me...I wish someone had pried it out...because some [children in care] may not know, ‘oh, this isn't appropriate for my foster parents to be saying.’...little kids are so vulnerable.”
Sierra credited her social worker’s advice as one of her guiding principles “if you want something, ask for it. Closed mouths don’t get fed.” Sierra emphasized the importance of youth in care to develop self-advocacy skills:
I just had so many opportunities that I felt like I missed out on because I was depressed or stuck on not communicating. And you look back on those times and you’re like, ‘wow, it could have been solved with a simple phone call or something.’ But I didn't want to do that because [I] was being scared or something. And that's okay, but in the system, like I said, closed mouths don’t get fed, you only fail by not trying.
Most respondents stressed the need to self-advocate, often pointing out a trusted adult who helped facilitated such advocacy in ways that were appropriate to their changing needs.
Respondents’ Changing Needs
As respondents matured and progressed through foster care, they experienced developmental changes and critical life events. Many difficulties stemmed from challenges to authority as they moved toward adulthood within the restrictions of foster care and dependency court oversight. Respondents weighed the value of remaining in care against the knowledge that it came with heightened intrusion and restrictions.
Most respondents believed that the benefits of foster care outweighed its burdens, especially in the absence of other resources. Barbie advised other youth to “sta[y] in care because I aged out at 18 so just stay in care and try to make it at least to 21 because you receive more help afterwards.” As Delonte neared adulthood, he “realized DSS [Department of Social Services] is not a joke. If you don’t take them seriously, they will definitely close your case and let you be hard up.” He was nervous about leaving his supportive network, in which his judge played a key role:
[T]he judge used to always ask me if there was anything I wanted, do I want to go to college, or what do I want to do, or do I want to go to trade school. And if I said ‘yeah,’ the judge ordered it or ordered the assessment like, ‘ok, we’ll refer him to some programs’ or point him in the right direction. The judges and the court, as far as I know, always led me in the right direction. Always asked me what’s my finishing goals and that 21 for me was right around the corner.
Likewise, at Jeffrey’s last hearing: “time was ticking. I was getting older.” He shared his sense of accomplishment, noting the role of the court: “They raised a good young man.”
Amber was among the three respondents who exited care at 18 (one of the three, Kay, reentered to leave again at 21). Amber’s decision was driven by her resentment of the demands of foster care on her time and its intrusiveness, especially since she did not perceive the services she received as helpful in preparing her for adulthood:
[A]t 18, obviously you're entering adulthood and it's like they're still treating you like you're this small child that entered into foster care. Now, with the housing vouchers, they don't allow this and they don't allow that… [T]he main goal after 18 is to push for independent living. [Staying in care] was not pushing for independent living because you're still doing the same thing that you were doing in foster care, all while having more responsibility, dealing with meetings and then looking over your bank account and this and that. I feel like that's just an invasion of privacy.
Such sentiments were particularly salient for respondents with children, who mentioned conflict around their freedom to make parental decisions. Laura was torn between her fear of facing adulthood alone and intrusive scrutiny, especially related to her parenting, who worried “about leaving care because I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t have someone” but at the same time didn’t want to be “under a microscope, having someone watch my every move trying to tell me what to do with my child, my children, none of that.”
The majority of respondents became more active in hearings when they were older adolescents, often due to a combination of stakeholder perceptions of their maturity and their growing sense of agency and a desire for knowledge and control. According to Laura, who was in foster care as a younger child and reentered at 16,
The first times someone explained something to me was when I turned 16 and got back in the system. Because at that point, I was more vocal and I knew what I wanted and I was more knowledgeable about the things that they could do. So I wanted to know what all these big legal terms meant and what they were talking about. So I spoke up and I asked but I don’t think a foster child should have to speak up and ask, you should just explain it to them.
Laura persisted despite the fact that not all stakeholders welcomed her self-advocacy, “when I asked questions, they would be a little like snippy with me. Like they had an issue with me asking questions and I’m like ‘I don’t care because I need to know what’s going on.’”
In sum, youth who were able to self-advocate experienced significant improvement in their court experiences, which in turn often helped them access resources and gain greater knowledge and control over facets of their life. Those whose self-advocacy did not produce desired results disengaged with the courts and with foster care in general. While self-advocacy may stem from typical development changes, respondents primarily associated it with a growing understanding of the court system and the receptivity and encouragement of the court and other child welfare stakeholders to their active participation.