NUMBER 1112 • 11 JANUARY • TRANSITION
After five years of research into the transition to independent living, the team is left with as many questions as answers. It is clear that our knowledge, and that of the field at large, is in its infancy. In addition, the research described involved small samples drawn from a single agency in a specific urban center, and generalizations can only be made with great caution. At the same time, our findings are suggestive of specific recommendations for intervention. What follows are the most salient implications of our work to date.
In the normative process of moving into independence in late adolescence, there is pain, ambivalence and a progressive move towards autonomy. This is complicated in youth leaving care by the restimulation of unresolved issues related to placement, which in fact, may represent a significant obstacle to the successful attainment of independence. Not only do we as interveners offer little opportunity for successive attempts at leaving and refueling, the separation process is doubly difficult because of unresolved losses from the past. This in turn may block skill acquisition. It is critical that youth workers rethink approaches that do not address the feelings provoked by this transition. At the same time, residential programs that launch young people into independence need to maximize flexibility and opportunities for experimenting with autonomous functioning.
The transition from placement to independent living is a complex process for young people in placement involving definite stages, each with unique tasks and needs. As a process, it provokes anxiety and anger, and interveners must be prepared to accept regression and acting out. This acting out should not be understood as a sign of unreadiness in the transition process, rather it is typical of this transition and youth need support to work this through. They are especially in need of consistent, supportive relationships with adults who can adopt a non-punitive approach and normalize the expression of feelings. It may be a natural tendency for some workers to distance themselves from young people in the midst of this mourning process, because it is in fact extremely painful, but the experience of the research team is that staff who avoid these issues tend to have clients who seem unable to acknowledge powerful emotions, which in turn creates more difficulty in the discharge process.
Our programs, in focusing on family reunification, create other barriers to successful transitions to independence. Leaving placement to live on one’s own must be recognized as positive option, and one that needs much advance planning and preparation. Not only are better programs needed, but also placement organizations need to explore the beliefs and values in their system in relation to this transition. Is independence valued? What about interdependence? Is preparation for living on one’s own important for all adolescents regardless of their discharge destination and should we normalize these needs? Are youth exiting to independent living allowed to fail as part of their development or is so much structure provided that there are few opportunities to experience freedom? Do young people have choices about how and when they leave placement? This research suggests that agencies should work to empower youth early on to participate actively in decision making as part of their preparation to live independently.
VARDA MANN-FEDER AND T. WHITE
Mann-Feder, V. R., & White, T. (2003/4) Lessons learned. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare. Vol.6 No.4., p. 202.