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Svetlana Shpiegel on Measuring Resilience Over Time Among Young Adults with Foster Care Experience

  • Svetlana Shpiegel
  • July 12 2023
  • PC128-2023

Svetlana Shpiegel

There are known protective factors that can help young people exiting foster care to thrive by reducing or eliminating the challenges that they often face. By measuring resilience over time, and viewing it as “a state, not a trait,” there is more opportunity to create networks and systems to support these young people as they transition to adulthood. In this episode, Dr. Svetlana Shpiegel discusses her co-authored paper, “Resilient Outcomes among Youth Aging-Out of Foster Care: Findings from the National Youth in Transition Database,” and shares how she and her colleagues assessed sustained resilience, periodic resilience, and sustained non-resilience among young adults exiting care, and why policies like Extended Foster Care are vital.

Svetlana Shpiegel is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy at Montclair State University. Her research interests include adolescents transitioning from foster care, child abuse and neglect, risk and resilience among vulnerable populations, and early pregnancy and parenthood among child-welfare involved youth.

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Siers-Poisson [00:00:06] Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode, we’re going to be talking with Dr. Svetlana Shpiegel about her recent paper, “Resilient Outcomes Among Youth Aging Out of Foster Care: findings from a National Youth in Transition Database.” That paper was coauthored with Cassandra Simmel, Beth Sapiro, and Silvia Ramirez Quiroz. Dr. Shpiegel is an associate professor at the Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy at Montclair State University. Her research interests include adolescents transitioning from foster care, child abuse and neglect, risk and resilience among vulnerable populations, and early pregnancy and parenthood among child welfare involved youth. Svetlana, thanks for joining us today.

Shpiegel [00:00:59] Thank you for having me.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:01] How is resilience defined broadly?

Shpiegel [00:01:05] So when you think about resilience, the definition that I generally use in my research is “positive adaptation in the context of risk or adversity.” So essentially, it’s doing well in the presence of risk. Now, it sounds easy and straightforward, but it’s actually quite complex in terms of constructs and in terms of measuring it. So what does it mean to do well and what does it mean to have risk or adversity, right? So both of these elements really should be defined in order to make sure that we’re talking about the same things. Right. And the same phenomena, or at least the phenomena that it’s clearly defined in some ways.

Siers-Poisson [00:01:51] So in examining resilience in young people who are transitioning out of foster care, you describe resilience as a state, not a trait. Can you explain what that means and why is that an important distinction to make?

Shpiegel [00:02:05] So it was really important for me to make that differentiation between a state and a trait. So early research on resilience as a construct, it began around the seventies, really, so we started paying attention to this concept of resilience and in these early studies talked about resilience as an individual trait, right? So they were these invincible kids that thrived in the presence of adversity. Right. And the notion was there must be something remarkable, unique about these children that made them thrive. And over the years, we really changed that conceptualization and moved from looking at resilience as something unique about the individual and really towards considering resilience as a state, a successful outcome. And that outcome doesn’t necessarily depend on anything unique that’s the attribute of the person, but more the attributes of their environments. Right? So that’s kind of how this concept of how much risk is there in the environment and how much protective factors or protective effects are present, and maybe that is what determines whether or not a person is going to exhibit a successful outcome. So I think when we talk about youth in care, in and out of care, it’s really, really important not to think about this as an individual attribute, that it’s something that is really up to the person. It is examining the environment of these young people and figuring out what were the strengths that really allowed this young people to thrive. Right? So that’s how I at least look at this in my studies.

Siers-Poisson [00:03:48] You’ve been doing this type of work, this type of research for quite a while. Why has resilience in youth exiting foster care in particular been a focus for you?

Shpiegel [00:03:58] So I actually started on this topic in my dissertation research about 15 years ago. And at that point, so I came to do research on using care because I worked with young people in care, I worked at the university that had a support program for young people who were out of care, and they came to the university to get their degree and were also receiving some services through what then was a statewide program. And I noticed in my work with them then that, you know, there are young people with some significant challenges, as you would expect, from a vulnerable and disadvantaged, oppressed population in many ways. But then there were also young people that did remarkably well, and they were really thriving. They were doing well academically. They were doing well socially. They were employed. They were working towards a career. They were engaged in the university right? and I think myself and the other staff we with these young people, we told ourselves we really want all young people to be there, all young people to really take full advantage of this time of transition to adulthood. Right. And their time in college. And we wanted to understand what is it in their environments that really brought that kind of successful functioning. So when I started my Ph.D. program and started thinking about my dissertation research, that’s when I kind of decided that that’s going to be my focus. I’m going to try to understand what are the effects that happen in their environment that could be correlated with the successful functioning among young people. And also, what are some of the things that might decrease the likelihood of that successful functioning?

Siers-Poisson [00:05:50] We’ll dig into some of those specifics in just a moment. I want to talk about the data you were able to use and who the young people were that you were able to study for this recent paper that looks at resilience at several points in time.

Shpiegel [00:06:04] So for this recent paper, this was a secondary analysis of the National Youth in Transition database. So NYTD is a federally mandated system, right. Where states submit information about young people who are aging out of care. So states have information about youth at age 17, 19 and 21, and all states are supposed to submit this data since the NYTD rule came into effect in 2011. So the first cohort was actually in 2011. Since then, we had three additional cohorts already 2014, 2017. And I believe the 2021 one is going to come out soon as well. So every three years there is a new cohort of NYTD that is being established in addition to NYTD I also used AFCARS data. So this is, is again it’s a data collection system, but states submit data on all youth who are in foster care in any given year. And that data includes information like placement, stability, where the youth are placed, and other child welfare related characteristics. Also race, ethnicity, gender, things like that. So what you could do is you could combine NYTD and AFCARS, and then you could look where youth were at age 17 in terms of their child welfare histories, right? And then look at them in their outcomes at age of 17, 19 and 21. And that’s what I did for this article, right. I combined NYTD and AFCARS. And this was the second NYTD cohort, 2014 NYTD cohort. So this is a secondary analysis, but what’s good about NYTD is that it is national, so it’s not nationally representative data necessarily because there is a lot of variation in state response rates. So you can’t necessarily call it nationally representative data, but nonetheless, and given the absence of national data on youth aging out of care, this data set represents an opportunity to get a large sample and also to get youth from many different states. So I use that data because of those strengths.

Siers-Poisson [00:08:25] Let’s dig into how you measured resilience. You talked about both risk and protective factors. So let’s talk about some of those. What did you see that made it easier for those young people to be more resilient?

Shpiegel [00:08:41] So this article, which really mirrors some other work in this area, it showed a couple of different things and I want to highlight some that are important and also consistent with other studies. So for example, we found that having a supportive adult, right? So a person that a youth could turn to for advice or for support and guidance increases the likelihood of resilient functioning, which is really not a surprise because we know how important support is at this really wonderful period of transition to adulthood. So young people, exit care, they a lot of times lose the connections that they had with their caseworkers, sometimes with their foster parents as well, and other services that they were given through the child welfare system. Right. And it’s not clear that they have other connections. Sometimes youth have few other stable connections. So having that supportive adult was important. The other factor that really is incredibly consistent with what we see in other studies of young people age now here, is the importance of staying in extended care. Right. So as you know, young people in a lot of states, most states nowadays, kids staying in care past the age of 18 and usually until age 21, if they choose to do so, and we have a body of work that is incredibly consistent that when youth choose to stay in care longer, their outcomes tend to be better. So if you look at a variety of different outcomes—homelessness and criminal justice involvement and educational attainment—all of these generally are connected in some way to extended foster care. And it’s not surprising, for example, if a youth is still in care and they’re at risk of homelessness, there are more services for them to draw from, right. And more programs that they could take advantage of. So this analysis, too, showed that if they stay in care longer rates, then their likelihood of resilience functioning increases. And that’s something that I really want to highlight because it’s a completely modifiable protective factor. Right? So it’s something that we could work on that could work in keeping youth connected with the child welfare system. Sometimes young people are eager to leave because they’ve been harmed by the system, and they perceive the system to be not to their advantage. Right. And sometimes to leave because they just are young people and want to be independent and don’t want to have oversight, right. And it’s completely developmentally appropriate. But we really want to make sure that’s youth understand the benefits of staying in care. And we also want to make sure that the few states that don’t have extended foster care to age 21, it’s really high time to do that is a policy initiative because the research is so consistent on that. But also there are some states where there is extended care, but if the young person is aware and they’re asking for it and it’s not, then they’re kind of by default leaving. And that’s something we can also address and talk about.

Siers-Poisson [00:12:19] I’m glad that you talked about extended foster care and the system, because these are all young people who have been involved in the child welfare system. And you pointed to some aspects of the different individual experiences that can really have an impact on how resilient those young people are able to be. And I think you mentioned things like the number of placements they’ve had or how much they’ve moved around. What are some of the important factors there that if they can be modified or fixed for individuals within the system, that can really help?

Shpiegel [00:12:52] So there are a couple of things. First of all, young people who ran away from a placement or had the runaway status recorded at age 17, right. They were less likely to exhibit resilience at age 19 and 21. And by the way, I haven’t talked about sort of this importance of looking at resilience over time and this differentiation between sustained and periodic resilience that I made in the article. So I’m happy to do that as well. But I think in general, regardless of whether it’s sustained or periodic, running away from placements represents a lot of risks for young people. So that is something that came across in the analysis. Placement, instability, again, very consistently with other studies that looked at this, are detrimental for young people. When young people move from placement to placement, they’re less likely to exhibit resilience functioning. And it’s really about connections, right. So even though this analysis didn’t look at the interaction between placement stability and, for example, having a mentor, but you could conceptually think about young people who are moving around a lot. They don’t necessarily have stable connections. They move schools frequently, so they might be less likely to be connected with an educational setting as they age out because they have gaps there. And also emotionally, it could be challenging. So there are all these factors that really show why placement instability is so detrimental for young people. And if you look at placement instability, it’s really, really frequent. A lot of these young people moved around a lot. So again, that’s another modifiable factor is to keep youth in placements that are at least somewhat long term. We have a movement now and this article shows a little bit that sometimes kinship care can be more stable than non-relative foster homes, right? So keeping youth in kinship placement to the extent possible if it’s safe placements, right. Identifying kin that could really take in the youth provides that benefits both for connection, right? For keeping the youth connected with the community that they’re from keeping, the youth connected potentially with other extended family members. And a lot of these young people, when they age out, they reconnect with their biological families because that’s what they have. Right. And so keeping youth in stable placements, if not possible in relative placements, Right. In stable non-relative placements, adoptive placements, I think that’s really important based on this analysis, but more importantly, based on a lot of other research that we have on this topic.

Siers-Poisson [00:15:42] In your assessments of resilience, did you see any differences by race or gender or any other demographic characteristics?

Shpiegel [00:15:51] So one of the things that this came across is that young women were more likely to exhibit resilience as compared to their male peers. Right. And that’s really in line with prior research. You could think about this in a variety of different ways. For example, there is a body of work that shows that young women are better… they have higher likelihood of reaching out for support. Right. So they are more likely to ask for help. They are more likely to reach out for services. And because of that, they might be more likely to be resilient. Because remember, it’s all about the balance of protection and risk. And young men are sometimes less likely to reach out for those supports. In addition, sometimes it’s about the definition. So here we included incarceration, for example, in definition of resilience, and substance use, and particularly with respect to criminal justice involvement, we know that the likelihood of young men to be involved with the criminal justice system is higher than young women. So that could also affect this finding, right? For example, if we looked at something like depression as an indicator of resilience, we may have had a different finding, right? Maybe young women would be more likely because we do have research that shows that young women are more likely to have a diagnosis of a mental health condition like depression. So some of it is support, some of it is the definition. And some of it might also be because young men might come to the attention of systems more than young women. So there’s all these complex effects, I think, that that relate to this finding.

Siers-Poisson [00:17:52] And were there any differences by race that you found?

Shpiegel [00:17:56] So there weren’t very major differences. The one finding that we did see is that Indigenous youth were less likely to exhibit sustained and periodic resilience. I think we don’t have a lot of work done on Indigenous youth and not of the foster care system, so we really don’t have a lot of information. But from the work that I’ve seen, it’s really related to the context of oppression and the historical trauma that these young people experience. So again, we didn’t look at the reasons for disparities here, but we could speculate that these young people come from communities with less resources, right? It’s all about resources available to these young people. And because of political oppression and historical trauma, some of these communities have less resources that youth can draw on. So I really do think that more research is needed on indigenous youth age narratives here and the kinds of supports that would be most effective to foster a resilient functioning in this population.

Siers-Poisson [00:19:14] You had just mentioned why it’s important to look at resilience, not just at one point in time, but over time. And I really liked the way that you laid it out as sustained resilience or periodic resilience, but also, unfortunately for some sustained non-resilience. So how did you measure those?

Shpiegel [00:19:34] So as I’ve said, there are lots of complexities in measuring resilience. So I just want to put it out there. People measure this in a lot of different ways and I am not pretending to say that this is the only or the best way to measure it. But really in this article we looked at indicators, rates, specific indicators of resilience. So usually when you talk about what does it mean to have competent functioning in the face of adversity, right? So usually folks talk about achievements of stage salient developmental tasks, right? So youth are achieving the tasks that they’re supposed to achieve given their age and they’re not exhibiting some of the negative outcomes that are commonly associated with the adversity they experience. For example, we know that young people in foster care are likely to experience homelessness as they age out, right, so avoidance of that would be indicative of resilience. So taking that approach and also I would also mention that it was important for me to look at this in a multidimensional way. Right. So there are a lot of prior studies on resilience that only looked at one of these. For example, some folks define resilience as a young people who is in higher education because few foster youth go to, get four-year college degrees or more. So in some studies that was the indication, which is helpful to identify the correlates of enrollment in higher education, but it also has the disadvantage of young people who might be in higher education but might have mental health symptoms, They might have other types of problems that this is not capturing. Right. So I wanted to look at this, me and my coauthors, we wanted to look at these different indicators. So we looked at connection to school or employment. And essentially we said if a youth is either in school or employed, they’re meeting the stage-salient developmental tasks of young adulthood, at least some of them, right, because we are also restricted to what we have in the data. And then we looked at absence of homelessness, substance use referrals and incarceration rates. So if they were connected to school or employed and didn’t have these negative outcomes, all of them, right? they were they were considered to be resilient. And then we also looked at age 19 versus age 21. So we looked, are they resilient at age 19? at age 21? Both? Neither? Right. So sustained resilience essentially meant that they were resilient at age 19 and 21. And then periodic resilience meant that they were either resilient at age 19 only or at age 21 only. And sustained non-resilience meant that they didn’t meet criteria for resilience in either of those times. And the reason we wanted to look at this long term is if we embrace the notion that resilience is a state rather than a trait, and we embrace the notion that it depends on the environment and the resources available in their environments, right, and young people are not to blame for not having resilient functioning in an environment that doesn’t provide them the opportunity to show that resilience. Then we have to embrace the fact that things change. Right? And young people might be resilient at one point and not in another. But also it allows us to sort of see that some young people might be able to sustain their resilience despite potentially some change in circumstances. So that’s also important because if you think about kind of the layman definition of resilience is you’re able to function reasonably well across time in different situations, right? So that’s what we’ve really wanted to see. So I think these groups allowed us to do that. And again, there are certainly other ways to measure resilience and other people do differently. And in this specific construct there is really not a consensus in terms of how to do this. So this is just how we did it and that’s not necessarily how everybody does.

Siers-Poisson [00:23:50] I’d like to talk about what the possible policy and practice implications might be of your research. And you did talk about the importance of making sure that extended foster care is available to young people regardless of what state they live in. What are some other opportunities for increasing those protective factors that you’ve found to be so useful?

Shpiegel [00:24:11] So I think one factor that I would like to talk about is the promise of mentorship programs. Both formal and informal mentoring could be a promising strategy. Again, based on this analysis, but also based on some other work in this domain. I think youth should be encouraged and provided opportunities to enroll in mentoring programs, and we should also facilitate opportunities for young people to be connected with natural mentors in their environments. So a lot of times they might have somebody who they feel that they could trust, who could be support for them. And I think when they’re in care, it’s really important that they’re not disconnected from these important adults in their lives. So it could be somebody in their extended family or somebody in the community, a former teacher. And a lot of times when youth enter care, they’re all of the sudden plunged into a different environment and they are disconnected from their natural mentors. So I think one thing we could do is to encourage those connections. And for young people that might not have those kinds of connections—and really for all young people— providing opportunities to enroll in a structured mentoring program. So we want to really make sure that there are ways for them to meet those supportive adults, because I think we all know that young people are not independent at age 18. They’re not independent ay age 21, even young people who have not experienced adversity, we’re not expecting them to be fully independent from their families at this young age. So for young people who’ve experienced a lot of adversity, it’s a completely unreasonable expectation to negotiate young adulthood alone. Right. So we want to kind of facilitate those kinds of connections. I also think that for younger youth, even things like extracurricular activities, right, would be important because you want to think about where can they meet those adults with whom they could be connected as they transition out of care, Right? What are the opportunities for them to gain those relationships? I also think that there’s some ways to capitalize on multiple targets that we want to achieve. So, for example, maybe something like apprenticeship programs or programs that build employment skills and also provide opportunities to get connected with supportive people would be great, right? Because that could build multiple different layers of protection around these young people. I think research on resilience is agreeing on the fact that it’s really all about the balance of risk and protection, right, for young people who experience a lot of risk. There needs to be a lot of protection that is built around them in order to really successfully function, Right. So we want to change that balance, want them to have a lot of protections, offsets the risk that they experience. I also think that there’s some attention to be paid to special populations, for example, parenting youth. It’s a topic that I am particularly interested in and passionate about. I’ve done quite a bit of work on young people who are parents, and these young people require additional support. This article actually shows that they’re less likely to exhibit sustained resilience, but periodic resilience is not necessarily less likely for them. So essentially this means that sometimes, depending on their situation as parents, it could be that they are, for example, unable to be employed or in school because maybe they’re parenting young kids, right, and they need the supports in order to then function successfully later on. Right. So things like childcare could really facilitate youth enrollment in higher education program because if they have nowhere to put their kids, they’re not able to enroll in these programs, they’re not able to work. So there is these special populations that I think are really, really important to pay attention to. We also have a finding in this article that youth who have an emotional or behavioral issue at age 17 are less likely to exhibit both sustained and periodic resilience at ages 19 and 21. So again, this highlights the challenges that are experienced by young people who have mental health concerns. And it’s important for us to provide services for these young people and target them directly and prioritize them in services. So these are going to be the young people that they really want to enroll in a mentoring program. Right. These are going to be the young people they really want to keep connected with the child welfare system past the age of 18. Because they are the ones who have more risk and they need more protection, more cushion in order to successfully negotiate transition to adulthood.

Siers-Poisson [00:29:29] Svetlana. You also emphasized the importance of getting input from current and former foster youth on what they need. What helped or hurt their transition? Topics like that. Are there good examples of ways that those valuable insights are currently being collected?

Shpiegel [00:29:47] So I think we actually are doing much better now in terms of incorporating lived expertise in in research, right? so a lot of us who do this work, work with youth, do this research with young people, we have young people who serve as members of advisory boards that kind of take a look at findings and give their opinion. And we also incorporate young people in intervention design. Right. So there are there is an intervention design for this youth, it should be “nothing about me without me,” right? We can’t sort of say that we know what this youth needs. We really need to work with young people. First of all, I think doing research with young people is really important. But even if research was not done with input from young people, discussing that, making meaning of that and translating that to intervention and providing additional context is really important. And I think a lot of people of course, now there’s a lot of folks who developed interventions and even practitioners in the child welfare system. A lot of systems in a lot of states have youth advisory boards, right? And they have ways to incorporate youth expertise in this. And I think that’s really critical. We should do more and we should be very consistent in our efforts to seek input from young people.

Siers-Poisson [00:31:14] And as we wrap up, what future research would you like to do or see done on this particular topic of resilience in that systems setting?

Shpiegel [00:31:23] You know, one of the things that I would love to do and wasn’t able to do in this particular study is to just have a better assessment of resilience. So this article was able to look at outcomes that are kind of external. Are they in school or employed? Are they not incarcerated? Are they not homeless? They’re not using substances or not at least haven’t been referred for a substance use evaluation. Right. But that’s limited in some ways. Ideally, I would like to know something about their peer relationships, about their mental health functioning. Right. About optimism. Are they really thriving? Right. Not just kind of this basic external indicators. So I think that would be great. And that information, unfortunately, does not exist in in NYTD. So I was not able to do that. I also think that, as I’ve said, we need more research on Indigenous youth. What kind of interventions work for them, what kinds of protection or protective factors do they need? So what should we really be doing for this young people? I think we have worked on some analysis that are specific to other racial and ethnic groups, but I have not seen much of this population and I have some really good, brilliant colleagues that are starting to do this work. And then the other thing that would be great is to have a longer time period, right? So what happens to them at age 23, 26, 30 as they become parents themselves, as they establish their relationships for the future, their careers. So I think that would also be great because this is just age 19 and 21, and we know that young people sometimes take a little time, right? So there’s some youth who are out of here who are not completing their high school diplomas, for example, at age 18. They’re completing them at age 21, and then they will go to college, just not at age 19 or 21. They’re going there at age 23 or 24. Most research on this population is really limited to this period of between 17 and 21, sometimes 23. Anything after that is at this point kind of a mystery, right? So we really want to prolong that time period as well.

Siers-Poisson [00:33:59] Svetlana, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s really interesting research and we’ll look forward to hearing more.

Shpiegel [00:34:05] Thank you so much for having me.

Siers-Poisson [00:34:08] Thanks so much to Dr. Svetlana Shpiegel. She joined us to talk about her coauthored paper titled “Resilient Outcomes Among Youth Aging Out of Foster Care: findings from the National Youth and Transition Database.” You can find a link to that paper in the program notes for this episode. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office of any other agency of the federal government or of the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pondering. Thanks for listening.


Child Development & Well-Being, Children, Economic Support, Economic Support General, Education & Training, Employment, Employment General, Health, Job Training, Mental Health & Substance Abuse, Postsecondary Education, Social Determinants of Health, Transition to Adulthood