Jessica Woodbury Professor Jini Roby, Social Work
Researchers in a variety of disciplines have begun to describe identity development as having a narrative character (Kellas, 2005; Vangelisti, 2004). They explain that narrative identity consists of a self-perception which is rooted in personal and shared (especially within the family) stories (Vangelisti, 2004). These stories, or core memories, help us to define who we are, as well as our ultimate value and potential. With this research we desired to further the understanding and application of narrative identity theory as it applies to the fragmented personal and collective stories of children in foster care.
Although much research has been done regarding foster care, little research has been performed exploring the unique identity formation of youth in foster care; those studies which have been performed on the subject have focused only on the effects of such elements as stigmatization (Kools, 1997). Additionally, there is great knowledge of the often disconcerting outcomes of youth following emancipation from the foster care system, (Pecora et al., 2006; Reilly, 2003), yet these problems still persist. We hoped that this research would open new discussion in relation to forming a positive sense of self among youth in foster care. Also, we hoped to discover a correlation between positive personal and family narrative identity in this vulnerable population and their preparedness to be responsible and stable independent adults upon emancipation from the child welfare system. If such a correlation was discovered, training could be established for foster parents and professionals to promote this positive sense of self which would lead them to more healthy adult behaviors.
A graduate student had already initiated this research with my mentor when I joined the research team. The literature review had been compiled, the survey instrument had been formulated, and Institutional Review Board (IRB) approvals had been received from BYU, Provo School District, and the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). Both the school district and DCFS had agreed to recruit youth for the study. I joined the research team after most of the work for these necessary steps had been done, but before we had received referrals or begun the collection of data. At this point I received training on the research process and on administering our survey. We also discussed strategies and ethical issues dealing with research, and those particularly applicable to our research with youth in foster care.
My role regarding the research was to administer around 40 of the 200 surveys, assist with the compiling of the data into a research database, then take part in the analyzing of our data, focusing on the area of biological family and self perception. Additionally, I would possibly co-author a few of the articles submitted for publication regarding our research outcomes, and participate in presenting the research at various research and social science conferences.
We initially believed we would be able to collect the data over a period of three months, beginning our interviews in early November and finishing in early February. Overall, we foresaw the preparation of articles based upon the outcomes to be compiled or completed by April. Unfortunately, due to a number of challenges, we still, over a year after beginning interviews, are in the process of obtaining our goal of 100 surveys from youth in foster care and 100 surveys from their same-age counterparts in society. These challenges, however, have taught me valuable lessons which will better prepare me when conducting or participating in research in the future.
The main challenge we faced was in working with the large bureaucracies of social systems to receive our needed referrals for study subjects. Because of the vulnerable status of youth in foster care, we needed to receive referrals from the individual caseworkers for those youth. There were often delays in study information trickling down from the top of DCFS to the individual caseworkers, and there were often delays between the time they received that information and contacted the youth in their case load regarding the study. Additionally, if the caseworker thought the study material would be too sensitive for one of the eligible youth in their case load, they would not refer that youth.
The struggle to administer a survey to youth in the foster care system continued once we received a referral. Sometimes we would still be unable to include that youth in the research as we may not be able to get a hold of them, they may change foster homes, not be at the home when we arrived, and so forth.
Although the research is still incomplete, and although I hope to have the opportunity to still be a part of the various phases and even publications of the research, I feel I have already gained extremely valuable insight which will help me in conducting research in the future. I have learned to be patient, flexible, and proactive in performing research. I have gained a greater understanding of the types of challenges that arise while performing research with human populations, especially at-risk populations who, for good reasons, can only be reached through a bureaucratic system. And I have gained extremely valuable and personally rewarding experience performing hands on research working with and interviewing vulnerable human populations.
Overall, this research has not only provided me with experience and insight which will be extremely valuable while obtaining various opportunities or performing research in the future, but it also instilled in me a greater passion and excitement for generating new knowledge through the research process. I understand at a deeper level the importance of sharing new knowledge to improve the world around us, and will now go forth with greater confidence and passion for doing so in whatever future academic and professional institutions I may be a part of.
- Kellas, J. (2005). Family ties: Communicating identity through jointly told family stories. Communication Monographs, 72(4), 365-389.
- Kools, S. (1997). Adolescent identity development in foster care. Family Relations, 46(3), 263-271.
- Pecora, P., Kessler, R., O’Brien, K., White, C., Williams, J., Hiripi, E., English, D., White, J. & Herrick, M. (2006). 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, 1459-1481.
- Reilly, T. (2003). Transition from care: status and outcomes of youth who age out of foster care. Child Welfare, 82(6), 727-746.
- Vangelisti, A. (2004). Handbook of family communication. New Jersey: Lawrance Erlbaum Associates.