Understanding Care Leavers as Youth in Society A Theoretical Framework for Studying the Transition out of Care

Natalie Glynn - Children and Youth Services Review


A subset of young people in state care will remain in care until they reach the age of majority in their country, at which point they are said to “age out” of the care system. These young people are understood to be facing additional hardships in the transition to adulthood by virtue of their potentially reduced social capital and, thus, smaller personal safety nets. This group has been the subject of some study, particularly outcomes research, to better understand this transition. However, a recurring critique of the field is the lack of theorizing about the transition out of care. As such, this paper presents a potentially fruitful theoretical framework for examining the transition out of state care. Notably, the framework includes theoretical and conceptual tools for understanding both individual and structural elements of the transition as well as the transition as a process in time rather than an event. The theoretical argument is supported by data from a qualitative longitudinal case study of young people leaving care in Ireland. Using an analysis of the narratives of 16 young people who aged out of care in the past year, a combined framework of Recognition theory, precarity, and liminality theory was developed to capture individual and social elements of the leaving care process. Notably, young people desired a liminal space “to figure things out”. However, many experienced the conditional aftercare support system as one marking certain young people as deserving of assistance while others were less so. These desires and experiences combined such that some young people felt respected and cared for as youth in transition while others did not. Thus, the use of Recognition, precarity, and liminality explains how young people sought to create secure spaces to mature while contending with structural elements that had the potential to undermine their transition to adulthood.