• By Ali Abunimah
  • Posted on Monday 09th July, 2007

Care leavers still missing out on good research

In their efforts to find useful responses to persistent social problems, researchers will sometimes end up reflecting on the imperfections and inadequacies of their science.It is a bleak fact that the 20,000 US and 8,000 English young people who leave government care each year are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, and/or dependent on public assistance than their peers who have grown up at home. They are also at higher risk of physical and mental health problems and criminal behavior. It means that after a difficult childhood – spent first with abusive or neglectful parents and then with foster parents or in institutions – teens graduating from the welfare system usually face even more obstacles. Various types of independent living programs (ILPs) have been designed to ease the transition to independence. Most offer counseling and education related to job skills, budgeting, household tasks, and home seeking. Supporters of ILPs say they are good investments of public funds because they can head off later, more costly problems. And the existing research generally supports their claims. Young people who participate appear to be more likely to graduate from high school, become employed, and live independently (paying all of their housing expenses) than other graduates of state care. The trouble is, as the authors of a recent article in Children and Youth Services Review warn, the research has been quite weak and the jury is actually still out on their effectiveness.Based on a systematic worldwide literature search, Paul Montgomery, Charles Donkoh, and Kristen Underhill identified eight evaluations of ILPs, one in the UK, the rest in the US. They compared participants to graduates of state care who received other types of support or no support at all. So far so good: but only to encounter a further problem with this type of research – comparing like with like. ILP participants and non-participants had different characteristics at the outset. For example, in one study they were generally older than the non-participants and so the former groups’ achievements might have been the result of their maturity rather than their ILP experience. Montgomery and his team also note other problems with the existing studies, such as basing findings on information gathered from a small number of graduates whose experiences might not reflect those of the majority.It comes down to an argument for better studies: Montgomery and his colleagues argue that ILPs should rest on a foundation of rigorous research. Research that randomly assigns a large number of graduates of state care, to ILPs or to other conditions and compares their progress over time would clarify the overall effects, the impact of various components, and show which types of young people benefit the most from the experience. Better research evidence can, in turn, lead to better support for this highly vulnerable group.

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