Functioning Patterns Among Older Adolescents in Foster Care: Results from a Cluster Analysis

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Older adolescents in foster care represent a heterogeneous population, though such heterogeneity is often underemphasized in research and practice. This study employed a cluster analysis to identify subpopulations in a large, national sample of 17-year-old youth based on the following indicators: educational attainment, connection to a supportive adult, adolescent parenthood, homelessness, substance abuse referral and incarceration. Data from the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) and Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) were used in the analysis. Results revealed five subpopulations defined by specific strengths, vulnerabilities and child welfare experiences. The largest group identified (39%) functioned successfully in all domains, whereas an additional group (15%) exhibited consistent maladaptation. The remaining groups evidenced variable adaptation patterns, with strengths in some domains and challenges in others. Entry to foster care for reasons other than child's problem behaviors, and placement in stable, family-based settings were associated with belonging to the most adaptive group. Findings emphasize heterogeneity among older adolescents in foster care, and call for better design and targeting of child welfare services and programs as appropriate to the needs of specific subgroups.



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