On Your Own Without a Net: The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations

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On Your Own Without a Net documents the special challenges facing seven vulnerable populations during the transition to adulthood: foster care youth, youth involved in the juvenile justice system, youth formerly in the criminal justice system, runaway and homeless youth, special education students, young people in the mental health system, and youth with physical disabilities. During adolescence, government programs have been a major part of their lives, yet eligibility for most programs typically ends between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. This critical volume shows the unfortunate repercussions of this termination of support and points out the issues that must be addressed to improve these young people's chances of becoming successful adults. As a result, On Your Own Without a Net will find a welcome home on the desks of policy makers, educators of teens and young adults, and academics across the social sciences.
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Editorial Reviews

Jane Knitzer
On Your Own Without a Net brings to light those many issues facing vulnerable youths as they transition to adulthood. The contributors to this ambitious and important volume focus specifically on those youths that have come in contact with mental health, juvenile justice, criminal, foster care, and special educational systems. It reflects a very innovative and interesting approach to linking research with policy and practice.”—Jane Knitzer, National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University
James Cote
On Your Own Without a Net picks up where The Forgotten Half left off in the 1980s. This volume has been produced to warn policy makers and academics that the increasingly prolonged transition to adulthood presents special challenges to many socially excluded young people. It goes beyond the rhetoric of greater ‘freedom of self-determination’ to alert opinion leaders that millions of young Americans need support, guidance, and assistance in becoming productive, contributing members of society.”—James Côté, University of Western Ontario
Ron Haskins
“As parents whose children live at home after college know all too well, the transition to adulthood is difficult. But the transition is much tougher for youth who suffer disadvantages such as living in foster care or in juvenile facilities or who have mental or physical disabilities. This volume is the definitive overview of the problems faced by these troubled youth and the support they need and deserve from a largely indifferent government.”—Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution


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Product Details

Meet the Author

D. Wayne Osgood is a professor of crime, law, justice, and sociology in the Department of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University. E. Michael Foster is a professor of maternal and child health in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Constance Flanagan is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Pennsylvania State University. Gretchen R. Ruth is a research associate at Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago. 


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Read an Excerpt

On Your Own Without a Net

The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations

Copyright © 2005

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-63784-6

Chapter One Introduction: Why Focus on the Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations?


The period from the end of high school through the twenties is enormously eventful and consequential. As individuals move from childhood to adulthood, they complete their educations, begin full-time employment, change residences, enter (and often exit) marriages and cohabitations, and become parents. In fact, all of these demographic changes are concentrated in this period far more than during any other time of life (Rindfuss 1991). As Arnett (2000) summarized, 95 percent of twelve-through seventeen-year-olds live with one or more parent, 98 percent are unmarried, less than 10 percent are parents themselves, and over 95 percent are students. By age thirty, 75 percent are married, 75 percent are parents, and less than 10 percent are enrolled in school. Young people must accomplish much during these ages, and for many this period is one of extended exploration as they try out alternative paths in all these domains before settling on long-term commitments (Arnett 2000).

What happens during the transition to adulthood also has great impact on young people's futures. For instance, youths who graduate from college during this period not only go on to jobs with higher pay and greater prestige (Chen and Kaplan 2003; Jencks et al. 1979; Kerckhoff, Raudenbush, and Glennie 2001), but they also participate more in political and civic affairs (Kingston et al. 2003; Milligan, Moretti, and Oreopoulos 2004). In contrast, those who experience problematic events during this age span, such as unsuccessful marriages, becoming a parent before marrying, or having difficulties with drugs or crime, in later years will have a more difficult time finding financial security, satisfying family relationships, and so forth (Cherlin 1992; McLanahan and Booth 1989; Newcomb and Bentler 1988).

The Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood sponsored and organized the present volume. This network, which is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and directed by Frank Furstenberg, was formed in recognition of the need for greater attention to this period of life by both researchers and policy makers. This is the second volume produced by the network, and it is a logical extension of the first, On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut 2005). On the Frontier of Adulthood presents research by a large and varied group of scholars who address fundamental questions about the transition to adulthood using major national and international data sets. Their work documents many ways that this period of life has changed over the past century and notes how these changes present challenges to most youth and their families.

The research in On the Frontier of Adulthood concerns the broad, general population of youth in the United States (and some other industrialized countries as well). As the editors note (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, and Settersten 2005; Settersten 2005), if the transition to adulthood proves difficult for a large share of this general population, then there is great reason for concern about groups of youth who enter adulthood with special vulnerabilities. The present volume takes up this concern by focusing on several groups of young adults who have especially poor prospects as they make the transition.

The William T. Grant Foundation's well-known report, The Forgotten Half: Non-College-Bound Youth in America (William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship 1988), highlighted the fact that some youth have far better prospects for successful and satisfying adult lives than others. In particular, the report focused on ways in which the odds are stacked against the large portion of young people who do not attend college. We take this theme one step further and concentrate on smaller populations of youths whose life circumstances present considerably greater challenges. An analogy might be that, if middle-class college-bound youth pass through the transition on relatively well-greased wheels, the transition is prone to be rough sledding for working-class non-college-bound youth, and it can be a minefield for the vulnerable populations.

The purposes of the present volume are (1) to identify the challenges facing those adolescents and young adults for whom the lengthening process of becoming an adult is likely most difficult and (2) to bring attention to policy issues concerning the transition to adulthood for these groups. These vulnerable youth often suffer from emotional and behavioral problems and have a history of problems in the school and the community. In addition, their families may be unable or unwilling to offer them the support that is so helpful to most other youth during this transition (Schoeni and Ross 2005). This support can include financial assistance needed to obtain the lengthy education required for professional occupations, child care when babies come sooner than steady incomes, and a place to stay when marriages fail or jobs are lost. But what about those in their twenties who have no family on which to call, whose pasts are so troubled that they have lost their family's goodwill, or whose families lack the resources to provide support? These questions are especially important for youth whose skills and abilities are so limited that they will always rely heavily on others.

This volume examines the transition to adulthood for seven populations that may be especially vulnerable during this period due to the special challenges that they face. Each of these populations is distinguished by its involvement in particular governmental programs:

youth in the mental health system

youth in the foster care system

youth in the juvenile justice system

youth reentering the community from the criminal justice system

youth in special education

youth with physical disabilities and chronic illness (those in the health care system)

runaway and homeless youth (who are frequently involved in the juvenile court, foster care, and homeless shelter systems)

We chose these groups because they face exceptional challenges for making successful transitions into the major arenas of adulthood, such as employment, higher education, marriage, and parenthood. The greater challenges may stem from any or all of several sources. Some of the groups are hampered by limited abilities or skills, such as youth with physical disabilities and former special education students with learning disabilities. Others, such as young adults who spent their teen years in foster care and runaway and homeless youth, have been hindered by unreliable or nonexistent familial support. Tasks of the transition to adulthood, such as achieving financial and residential independence, are likely to be daunting for young people with physical disabilities, chronic physical illness, or mental illness. For others, such as the formerly incarcerated, involvement in government systems may have exacerbated their initial problems or have stigmatized them in a way that makes success less likely.

Though the causes and nature of their involvement may differ, all of these youth have depended on public systems in important ways and often for many years. That involvement poses new problems as they enter adulthood. Perhaps the most critical is the loss of support from systems that had provided benefits to them as children. In some instances, involvement in the system is phased out; in others, involvement ends abruptly. Some youth may transition into other, adult-oriented systems, such as vocational rehabilitation. In a few cases (such as youth who receive special education services; see chapters 8 and 9) programs are designed to smooth the transition to adulthood. From a public policy perspective these programs are noteworthy because they are among the few programs in the U.S. designed to improve the transition to adulthood per se.

These transitions generate a set of important and complex public policy issues. A major purpose of this volume is to consider the repercussions from ending this support at a time when other youth continue to receive so much assistance from their families.


Two themes from research on the transition to adulthood in the general population form the backdrop to our work on vulnerable populations. Strong support for both of these themes can be found in research presented in On the Frontier of Adulthood (Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut 2005), the earlier volume produced by the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, as well as in previous research on this period of life. The first theme is that the process of moving from adolescence to adulthood has become longer, more complex, and less orderly over the last fifty years. For these reasons, the transition to adulthood is now more challenging for all youth. The second theme is that a large share of youth in the general population draws heavily on the resources of their families as they make this transition. In this light it is especially problematic that governmental assistance for the vulnerable populations typically ends at the beginning of the transitional period.

The Lengthening Transition

At the start of the twenty-first century, making the transition to adulthood has become more difficult. Compared to the relatively orderly sequence that marked adult status for many (especially for middle-class whites) in the mid twentieth century (Modell, Furstenberg, and Hershberg 1976; Rindfuss 1991; Winsborough 1978), no modal pattern reflects the experiences of youth today. Rather, what constitutes a successful and complete transition is now less clear, and youth are less secure that decisions and investments made today will be the right choices for tomorrow.

From the early nineteenth century through the mid twentieth century, the transition to adulthood became progressively more standardized and orderly (Shanahan 2000). Improvements in health reduced the chances that the death of a parent would force teenagers into full-time work or care-taking (Uhlenberg 1974), and the advent of such institutions as foster care and welfare also made it less likely that adolescents would be forced into adult roles (Kohli 1986). Furthermore, with rising standards for universal education, the end of high school became the clear norm as the minimum age for home leaving, full-time employment, marriage, and parenthood (Hogan 1981).

By 1950, entry into adulthood had become an orderly and quick sequence of transitions, with completion of education and full-time employment (for males) followed by marriage and then parenthood. In the decade after the Second World War, the rapid expansion of the American economy, the array of benefits to veterans, and the growth of housing permitted or even promoted a rapid passage to adulthood (May 1990; Modell 1989). Favorable economic conditions and optimism about the future among people in their late teens and early twenties resulted in early family formation. By the time they reached their early twenties, close to half of American men were full-time workers, and women, full-time mothers.

The historical era of the "marriage rush" and "baby boom" lasted only a couple of decades. In the final third of the twentieth century, several trends led to increasing complexity and growing duration of the transition to adulthood. During the 1960s, rapid changes took place in both the labor market and in social attitudes about women's work and family roles. For example, by the mid-1970s, a high school education, which earlier in the century was uncommon, no longer sufficed to ensure a well-paying job, and many parents began to have difficulty supporting a family on a single wage (Furstenberg 2000; Sagawa 1998). Despite improving economic conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, the duration of the transitional period continued to increase, due at least in part to attitudinal changes of young people and to increasing educational expectations in the labor market (Fussell and Furstenberg 2005).

The lengthening of the transition to adulthood is especially evident in a growing period between leaving the home of one's parents and forming one's own family (Fussell and Furstenberg 2005). Unlike earlier times, most youth in the United States today move away from home by eighteen or nineteen, with only about 10 percent of men and 30 percent of women remaining there until marriage (Arnett 2000; Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1994). Meanwhile, from just 1970 to 1996, the median age of marriage increased from twenty-one to twenty-five for women and from twenty-three to twenty-seven for men (Arnett 2000).

Accompanying this change, there is no longer a clear standard or modal sequence among the major transitions to adult roles of ending education, marrying, entering the labor force, moving from home, and becoming a parent. Instead, their order varies enormously across individuals who face very different sets of opportunities and groups with different cultural practices (Mollenkopf, Kasinitz, and Waters 2005). In effect, the coupling between marriage, parenthood, and leaving the home of one's parents is now loose (Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1993). As the proportion of the population receiving higher education has grown from 14 percent in 1940 to 60 percent by the mid-1990s (Arnett 2000), youth commonly mix schooling with employment and/or parenthood (Shanahan 2000). Furthermore, women are delaying the birth of their first child, often until they reach their thirties (Rindfuss, Morgan, and Swice-good 1988; Rindfuss, Morgan, and Offutt 1996). Where the youth of the 1950s could follow a simple and short path from adolescence to adulthood, youth today must chart their own, and most of them will take much longer to do so.

Family Support during the Transition to Adulthood

Becoming an adult does not happen all at once, but rather it involves an extended period of semiautonomy during which youth move away from full dependence on their families (Arnett 2000; Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1999). Indeed, for this reason it is important to recognize the transition to adulthood as a special period in life when people face unique challenges. Although they leave behind the restrictions of childhood and adolescence, their financial resources are limited, as are the experiences and connections that would land them jobs with good pay. Thus, only gradually can they take on adult responsibilities. Typically, they remain at least partially dependent on others, especially their parents, for various kinds of assistance. For some, families provide partial support as they remain at home for a period after high school; for others parents pay a large share of college expenses. Furthermore, steps toward independence are often reversed. For instance, during their late teens and twenties, 40 percent of American youth move back to their parents' home at least once after leaving (Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1994).

Families provide assistance to their children during the transition to adulthood in many ways. Parents often continue to provide food and shelter; they may give their children money to assist with bills or major expenses like the down payment for a house; and they may help their children by giving their time for tasks such as child care. Families also may provide social or emotional support and the motivation crucial to achieving success during the transition. Attachment to parents, indicating positive parental support, is associated with higher academic achievement (Cutrona et al. 1994) and higher perceptions of scholastic competence during college (Fass and Tubman 2002). Parents can also be a key source of guidance for their young adult offspring, providing advice about topics such as careers, money management, housing, and health care. At the same time, the character of the parent-child relationship changes significantly during this period and one of the important tasks for young adults and their parents is to develop a more peerlike relationship.

During childhood and adolescence, governmental programs have played a major role in augmenting family resources for meeting the needs of the vulnerable populations, but those program services typically end early in the transition period. How problematic is this termination? It is useful to consider this in light of the amount of assistance that families provide to youth in the general population during the transition to adulthood.


Excerpted from On Your Own Without a Net Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction : why focus on the transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations? 1
2 The transition to adulthood for youth "aging out" of the foster care system 27
3 The transition to adulthood for adolescents in the juvenile justice system : a developmental perspective 68
4 Policy and program perspectives on the transition to adulthood for adolescents in the juvenile justice system 92
5 Young adults reentering the community from the criminal justice system : the challenge of becoming an adult 114
6 Prisoner reentry and the pathways to adulthood : policy perspectives 145
7 Homeless youth and the perilous passage to adulthood 178
8 Transition for young adults who received special education services as adolescents : a time of challenge and change 202
9 Transition experiences of young adults who received special education services as adolescents : a matter of policy 259
10 Risks along the road to adulthood : challenges faced by youth with serious mental disorders 272
11 Coping with mental health problems in young adulthood : diversity of need and uniformity of programs 304
12 Adolescents with disabilities in transition to adulthood 323
13 Youth with special health care needs and disabilities in transition to adulthood 349
14 The transition to adulthood for vulnerable youth and families : common themes and future directions 375
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