How Employment Programs Can Support Young People Transitioning Out of Foster Care: Formative Evaluation Findings of Two Employment Programs

Publication Date: September 17, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. How do these programs operate, and do they operate with fidelity to their logic models?
  2. Whom do the programs serve, and do they achieve their program goals? What are some successes and challenges?
  3. Do these programs have the potential for rigorous evaluation in the future?

Learning how to succeed in the world of work during the transition to adulthood is a universal need, and young people aging out of foster care are no exception. But research consistently finds that compared with other young people those aging out of foster care have less stable employment, work fewer hours, and earn lower wages as they enter adulthood,[i] while often having greater demands to support themselves financially.[ii] This report examines two employment programs that focus explicitly on young people transitioning to adulthood from foster care and purposefully address this population’s unique experiences and needs.

Do such programs improve employment and financial prospects for young people aging out of foster care? Unfortunately, the evidence is limited, often because programs are small and may not be designed or implemented in a way conducive to rigorous evaluation. This study examined two such programs through formative evaluation, shedding light on key features of these programs and the young people they serve. The study highlights the important role of formative evaluation in laying the groundwork for successful future rigorous impact evaluation.

 

[i] Mark Courtney, Irving Piliavin, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, and Ande Nesmith, “Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood: A Longitudinal View of Youth Leaving Care,” Child Welfare 6 (2001): 685—717; Jennifer Hook and Mark Courtney, “Employment Outcomes of Former Foster Youth as Young Adults: The Importance of Human, Personal, and Social Capital,” Children and Youth Services Review 33, no. 10 (2011): 1855—65; Amy Dworsky, “The Economic Self-Sufficiency of Wisconsin’s Former Foster Youth.” Children and Youth Services Review, no. 27 (2005): 1085—18; Robert Goerge, Lucy Bilaver, Bong Joo Lee, Barbara Needell, Alan Brookhart, and William Jackman, Employment Outcomes for Youth Aging out of Foster Care (Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2002), http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/fostercare-agingout02/ Visit disclaimer page .

[ii] Stephanie Cosner Berzin, Alison M. Rhodes, and Marah Curtis, “Housing Experiences of Former Foster Youth: How Do They Fare in Comparison to Other Youth?,” Children and Youth Services Review 33, no. 11 (2011): 2119—26;  Amy Dworsky, Laura Napolitano, and Mark Courtney, “Homelessness during the Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood,” American Journal of Public Health 103, no. 2 (2013): S318—23; Judy Havlicek, Antonio Garcia, and Douglas C. Smith, “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders among Foster Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: Past Research and Future Directions,” Children and Youth Services Review 35, no. 1 (2013): 194—203; Thomas Keller, Amy Salazar, and Mark Courtney, “Prevalence and Timing of Diagnosable Mental Health, Alcohol, and Substance Use Problems among Older Adolescents in Child Welfare Systems,” Children & Youth Services Review, no. 32 (2010): 626—34; Peter Pecora, Ronald Kessler, Kirk O’Brien, Catherine Roller White, Jason Williams, Eva Hiripi, Diana English, James White, and Mary Anne Herrick, “Educational and Employment Outcomes of Adults Formerly Placed in Foster Care: Results from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study,” Children and Youth Services Review 28 (2016): 1459—81; Amy Dworsky and Elissa Gitlow, “Employment Outcomes of Young Parents Who Age Out of Foster Care,” Children and Youth Services Review 72 (2017): 133—40.

Purpose

To date, little is known about how employment programs for young people with histories of foster care operate and whether they are effective in promoting positive employment outcomes. A key finding from the Multi-Site Evaluation of Foster Youth Programs is that many programs serving Chafee-eligible young people are not ready for rigorous evaluation because they lack a clearly articulated logic model or are not implemented as intended.[i] This study fills a knowledge gap using formative evaluation to illustrate what is needed for programs to be ready for successful rigorous impact evaluation. The purpose of formative evaluation is to examine whether programs are being implemented as intended, expected outputs are being produced, and short-term outcomes are trending in the right direction; and to provide feedback to programs about program functioning and data-collection needs.

This series of formative evaluation activities explored how the employment programs iFoster Jobs and MY TIME are being implemented, who is served by each program, and whether participants seem to be reaching their employment-related goals. The study also explores how each program’s goals relate to the young people they serve and their programmatic approaches. Comparing the two program’s goals, populations served, and programmatic approaches provides additional insights into the variation in employment programs for young people transitioning out of foster care.

 

[i] Mark, E. Courtney, Michael Pergamit, Maria Woolverton, and Marla McDaniel, “Challenges to Learning from Experiments: Lessons from Evaluating Independent Living Services.” In From Evidence to Outcomes in Child Welfare: An International Reader, edited by Aron Shlonsky and Rami Benbenishty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Key Findings and Highlights

The study found that both iFoster Jobs and MY TIME are generally operating in alignment with the logic models developed through the formative evaluation process, although a few inputs and activities need to be more fully realized in practice. In addition, both programs are preparing their participants for employment and helping them connect to work. Forty percent of iFoster Job participants in our sample got a job, and 58 percent of our MY TIME analytic sample got a job at least once during their participation in the program. However, without a comparison group, these findings don’t show to what extent these outcomes differ from what the young people would have achieved without the programs’ services. Additional refinement of data-collection activities, including participant characteristics, program participation, and longer-term employment outcomes, are needed before a rigorous impact evaluation could be conducted to assess the programs’ effectiveness.

Even though both iFoster Jobs and MY TIME serve young people transitioning out of foster care, the programs serve young people in different circumstances and view the goal of employment differently. This translates into each program taking different implementation approaches despite similar training components. iFoster Jobs focuses on facilitated peer groups to practice work scenarios and uses community partners to provide additional supports. iFoster Jobs serves as a gatekeeper that introduces participants they have assessed as ready for competitive work to interviews for existing open positions with corporate employer partners. Often, these jobs serve as launching pads into industries with the potential for growth. MY TIME training focuses on facilitating individual and group reflections and MY TIME staff use every interaction with participants to build a trusting relationship. MY TIME develops mentoring relationships with its participants and uses early-employment experiences, even if they are not pathways to long-term careers, to help participants develop the skills and resilience that will serve them well in future employment. These formative evaluations of iFoster Jobs and MY TIME illustrate not only the key components and successes of employment programs for young people transitioning out of foster care, but they also highlight that different approaches are appropriate for different populations of young people.

Methods

The study began our inquiries with initial telephone calls to program leadership and then researchers visited each program where they conducted semi-structured interviews and focus groups with program staff, participants, and other stakeholders including local child welfare agency leadership and employer partners. Researchers also observed numerous program activities and informal interactions among young people and between program participants and staff.

Researchers also used program data to analyze participant characteristics, program participation, and employment outcomes. In the case of MY TIME, researchers conducted content analysis of staff notes regarding interactions with participants to explore the ways in which program staff provided a range of supports to participants. In addition, researchers conducted comparative analysis across the programs to explore how and why each program’s approach may work well for each program’s participants and in the context of each program’s goals.

Recommendations

Planning for the alignment between the program model, the population served, and the local context is essential to program success. It is important to clearly articulate how program components are expected to address the developmental needs of the specific population served and to develop a logic model that accurately represents the program’s focus population, program components, and approach to employer engagement. Then, it is essential that programs capture the types of data that define their focus population, youth participation in program components, and employer-engagement activities.

The formative evaluations also highlighted some common barriers to finding and maintaining employment for young people with foster care histories. These challenges can result in young people cycling through components of employment programs without becoming stably employed during program participation. Employment programs need to be aware of these barriers and identify ways of addressing them, including by partnering with local resource providers to serve young people in their program.

Programs, on their own or in partnership with local resource providers, can

  • provide access to concrete resources such as transportation and cell phones or laptops;
  • provide access to legal resources;
  • ensure young people know when and how to communicate their challenges to an employer;
  • maintain communications with the child welfare system for young people currently in care and community organizations for those who have left care to support participants in maintaining housing; and
  • prepare their participants for how to handle emotionally triggering or unfamiliar situations in the workplace.