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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney

Commonalities during the Transition to Adulthood

As these seven vulnerable groups struggle during the transition to adulthood to get work and to start families of their own, the particular profile of outcomes varies across the groups, but they share much in common.7 One commonality is that males, the poor, and youth of color are over-represented in every group. Another is that youth in every group vary widely as to the seriousness and type of problem or need. A third commonality is population overlap—that is, that members of one group often belong to another group as well. A fourth is that members of every group have poor outcomes in many domains. And the final commonality is that in every group the factors that contribute to success are the same.

Over-Represented Groups
Vulnerable populations generally have a larger share of males, of youth from poor families, and of youth of color than does the general population.8 Young men are over-represented both because specific biological factors are relevant to certain disabilities and because higher rates of typically male behavior bring them into contact with a government system. For example, autism, a disability that leads to placement in special education, is more common among boys than girls.9 And illegal behavior, which is far more common for males than females, brings contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.10 Differences in behavior may also elicit reactions from within the service systems that lead to this over-representation. Teachers, social workers, and police, for example, may be more troubled by the disruptive behaviors more common among males than by the depressive symptoms more common for females.

Youth of color are also over-represented in each of the vulnerable populations. The criminal justice system incarcerates African American men at six times the rate of whites.11 And youth with disabilities are twice as likely as youth in the general population to be African American.12 The over-representation of minority group members is partly attributable to poverty, which is sometimes an eligibility factor (as with foster care) and sometimes a risk factor (as with poor mental health) for the problem targeted by the system. Poverty can also play a role in the decision-making process regarding entry to a system. A family's standing in the community and whether it has the resources to purchase private counseling, for example, may influence whether a school principal decides to allow a family to address its child's misbehavior or to turn the matter over to the police or social services.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to assume that all youth in these vulnerable populations are poor. Even the most advantaged families sometimes have children with serious problems. And these families' resources may help them to obtain public services when needed, as when middle-class parents obtain a private diagnosis and press the special education system to provide corresponding assistance. Even so, the rate of poverty is 50 percent higher among disabled youth than among other youth.13

Poverty is also important at the community level. Rates of crime and delinquency are high in poor neighborhoods, in part because of the absence of the strong ties among neighbors that could enable an effective response to anti-social behavior.14 High crime rates in these areas enmesh more youth in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and the resulting victimization and family disruption raise risks for mental health, family stability, and disability. Again, though, there are countervailing dynamics in resource-rich neighborhoods. For instance, because of the higher overall levels of safety and academic achievement in such neighborhoods, a youth's minor transgressions can result in arrests and struggling students are more likely to land in special education.

Diversity of the Populations
It is important to keep in mind that, although each vulnerable group is defined by a problem or need and a corresponding service system, its population is far from homogeneous. Instead, youth in each population vary greatly as to the seriousness and type of problem or need. The special education system, for example, covers youth with mental retardation as well as youth with emotional and behavioral problems. And this diversity in problems or needs may correspond to underlying population differences. For instance, childhood disadvantage and educational failure is more common among serious and repeat offenders than among first-time offenders.15 Both before and during the transition to adulthood, youth with different problems require different resources. Youth who are blind and youth with an orthopedic impairment require quite different services from the health system; likewise the mental health system must provide different services to those suffering from moderate depression and to those experiencing a serious thought disorder, such as schizophrenia.

Youth in these seven groups also differ in the age at which their vulnerability arises, a variation that has implications for how long they are involved with a particular system. Some youth enter foster care as infants; others, as teenagers. Usually, being in these vulnerable populations as young adults represents at least some continuity from adolescence, but exceptions exist. Some mental health problems, for example, typically appear in early adulthood, and young adults can become involved in the criminal justice system without having previously encountered the juvenile justice system.16 Because research on the transition to adulthood is quite limited for most of these groups, much less is known about them as young adults than as children and adolescents.

Overlap among the Vulnerable Populations
Treating vulnerable youth as belonging to distinct groups is somewhat misleading, because the youth served by these different systems overlap to a large degree and in many different combinations. No good epidemiological data document how many youth are involved in more than one of these systems, but evidence shows that overlaps between specific pairs of systems are extensive. For instance, 35 percent of emotionally disturbed youth in special education are arrested as juveniles.17

One likely source of such overlaps is that the same risk factors, such as parental substance abuse, learning problems, and community disadvantage, dispose involvement in many of these systems. For instance, both incarcerated adolescents and foster youth typically have serious academic deficits, raising the likelihood of special education placement for both.18

Another source of overlap is the administrative links between the systems, with each sometimes referring youth to others. Special education and mental health professionals may refer youth to one another, and problems at school may lead administrators to call in justice personnel or child welfare. In some cases, one professional suspects a problem that falls into another professional's domain. In other cases, two different systems may provide services addressing the same problem, such as school assistance and outside counseling for an emotional disorder.

Yet another, and unfortunate, source of overlap is that involvement in one system may exacerbate other problems, thereby leading to contact with other systems. For instance, youth who come to the juvenile justice system with high rates of externalizing problems, such as violent behavior, often suffer as well from internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression.19 If the justice system removes a youth from friends and family to reside in a correctional facility, that experience could well exacerbate any internalizing problems and lead to contact with the mental health system. Similarly, the disruptions of moving into and out of hospitals, foster homes, and residential treatment facilities will disrupt learning and interfere with success at school, which has consequences not only for special education but also for delinquency.20 In this vein, research has found that removal from the home and multiple placements occasioned by spending time in foster care are also associated with increased criminal activity.21

Poor Outcomes in Many Domains
Regardless of the service system in which these youth find themselves, many experience poor outcomes across the major domains—education, employment, family formation—that mark the transition to adulthood.

Members of all seven of these vulnerable groups fare poorly at completing high school and obtaining the postsecondary education critical to occupational and financial success in today's economy. One study finds that only 54 percent of youth discharged from foster care at age eighteen complete high school within 2.5 to 4 years, compared with 78 percent of same-age peers in the general population.22 Limited education is particularly striking among young adults who have been incarcerated as either juveniles or adults, with studies reporting that fewer than 20 percent have diplomas or GEDs.23 Similarly, fewer than 15 percent of homeless youth over age eighteen have high school diplomas.24 Educational deficits are genuine but less dramatic for some other groups such as young adults who were in special education, youth with mental health problems, and youth with physical disabilities.25 Even so, education is often severely limited among the members of these groups whose problems are more serious. For instance, young adults with multiple physical disabilities have only a one in twelve chance of completing a higher education.26 Although data on rates of college attendance generally are more scarce, rates appear to be remarkably low for all vulnerable groups. By age twenty, less than 10 percent of former foster youth have attended college.27

One of the primary tasks of the transition to adulthood—to begin full-time employment with the aim of achieving financial independence—proves a greater challenge for all of these vulnerable groups than for the general population. Again, the differences are moderate for some groups, more stark for others. For instance, 57 percent of youth from special education have full-time employment three to five years after high school, compared with 69 percent for other youth.28 But only about one-third of homeless youth are employed full-time.29 As with education, consequences can be more extreme for youth with more serious problems: 39 percent of young adults aged eighteen to thirty with serious physical disabilities are in the labor force, compared with 72 percent of those with mild disabilities and 79 percent of the general population.30

The combination of limited education and employment has understandable consequences for the living circumstances of the vulnerable groups. Research on this topic for former foster youth, homeless youth, and young adults involved in the juvenile justice system shows that all are likely to live below the poverty level, to have trouble paying bills and other expenses, and to depend on public assistance.31 The nature of the problems that arise also depends on a group's particular challenges and life histories. For instance, former foster youth and homeless youth have high rates of homelessness and unstable living situations, and establishing an independent household is especially problematic for young adults with physical disabilities or mental retardation.32

Rates of marriage do not appear to differ much between the vulnerable groups and the general population.33 Perhaps this similarity between the two groups should not be surprising given the low rates of marriage among all young adults today, a reflection of combined trends toward later marriage among the highly educated and toward lower lifetime marriage rates in some disadvantaged groups.34

A more distinctive feature of family formation for the vulnerable populations is high rates of parenthood, especially outside of marriage. For instance, about a third of female former foster youth are raising children on their own by age twenty-one.35 Similarly, half of young women diagnosed with learning disabilities or emotional disturbances are mothers three to five years after they finish high school, compared with less than one-third of the general population.36 More than a quarter of young women involved in the mental health system experience unplanned pregnancies, compared with less than 10 percent of the general population.37 Taken together with the other difficulties of the vulnerable groups, these high rates of parenthood pose serious problems. A large share of women who had been in foster care, for example, reported that their children suffered from health, education, or behavioral problems, or had been removed from their homes.38 Members of these vulnerable groups also engage in more high-risk sexual activity, as reflected in the number of partners and sexually transmitted diseases, and they are more often subjected to sexual victimization.39

Other impediments block the path toward adulthood. Some obstacles are simply continuations of earlier problems, such as criminal behavior by young adults who had been involved in the juvenile justice system and mental disorders among young adults with mental health problems as adolescents.40 But most of these populations also face a wide variety of new problems. For instance, young adults formerly involved in the foster care, special education, and mental health systems have high rates of criminal behavior;41 those formerly involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems have elevated rates of mental health problems;42 and almost all the vulnerable groups have high rates of substance use.43

Factors Contributing to Success
Despite their vulnerabilities, many youth in all of the populations achieve at least a basic level of self-sufficiency, and some go on to reach more substantial success. Those who succeed tend to be characterized by resilience—the ability to surmount difficulties and to recover quickly from stressful events or mishaps.44 The resources that contribute to resilience come in many forms, from individuals' skills and personality, to supportive relationships with other people, to involvement in groups like churches and clubs. The more researchers can learn about these sources of resilience, the more they can strengthen social policy by showing how government assistance can enable people to do the most for themselves. A hallmark of policies based on resilience is an emphasis on youth taking an active role in creating their own success—a counter to the notion that social programs take away from individual responsibility.

Research has also begun to identify other factors that promote success in the transition to adulthood. One is success at school. Not only is school success a positive outcome in its own right, but it is a valuable resource that enhances success in many domains, particularly employment, which places an ever-increasing premium on education. Support from family and friends is a second common protective factor, as would be expected given all young adults' need for support from others during today's extended transition to adulthood. For example, research has found healthy interpersonal relationships valuable in helping juvenile offenders desist from crime.45 Similarly, healthy interpersonal relationships characterize the successful youth who leave residential treatment facilities.46 Certain personality traits, such as persistence and confidence, also enable some vulnerable youth to make a successful transition to adulthood.47