May 12, 2010

Research Methods

This research is based primarily on 63 interviews of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 who were former foster children. Interviews took place in 2006 through 2010. Most of the interviewees were homeless at the time of the interview; others had been recently homeless. The definition of “homeless” used here is the one given in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act:

   The term “homeless children and youth”

(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 103(a)(1)); and(B) includes—

(i) children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement;

(ii) children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (within the meaning of section 103(a)(2)(C));

(iii) children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and

(iv) migratory children.[191]

Youth interviewed for this report said they slept in cars, on the streets, in parks, under bridges, in abandoned buildings, temporarily in motels, in homeless shelters, in the homes of friends (“couch surfing”), living temporarily with people they did not trust, with people paying them for sex, and in tents.

The interviewees came from geographically diverse locations across California. While not specifically asked to list where they had grown up, interviewees sometimes referred to towns and cities where they lived in foster care. These included Anaheim, Apple Valley, Bakersfield, Berkeley, Cabrillo, Carson, Citrus Grove, Compton, Covelo-Round Valley, Eureka, Fresno, Fort Bragg, Hayworth, Hollywood, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Ontario, Orland, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Palo Verdes, Paris, Pasadena, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Rosemead, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Rosa, Tujunga, Ukiah, Upland, Victorville, Whittier, and Yucaipa. This is not a full list. Some interviewees did not say where they had lived; others gave the names of group homes instead of towns. It was not uncommon for an interviewee to state that he or she could not remember all the places he or she had lived in foster care.  All youth interviewees had been in foster care; some had also been in the juvenile justice systems and under the jurisdiction of the probation department.

Interviewees were found through several methods. In some cases, the researcher made an announcement at a location where homeless youth were gathered, such as in a dayroom of a drop-in center or at a meeting for residents at a shelter. Individuals would come forward and sign up to be interviewed. In other cases staff at a shelter suggested specific individuals to be interviewed because they were known to have been in foster care and were currently homeless. In one case a person who was allowing a homeless youth to sleep on her floor at home called Human Rights Watch. A few contacted our offices after seeing a request posted on the California Youth Connection listserv.

Nearly all interviews of youth were face-to-face. Interviews were held in a private location such as an office, or a place where others could not hear the conversation. Interviews took place in homeless shelters, drop-in centers, transitional living houses, on the streets of Hollywood, and in a homeless encampment along a river about a mile from the State capitol building.

Interviews lasted from around 30 minutes to three hours and were conducted in a narrative style. The researcher described the focus of the research and explained the measures that would be used to maintain confidentiality. General, open-ended questions were asked. The researcher took careful notes. In some cases the researcher read back quotes to the interviewee to ensure exact wording.

Interviewees were given the option to have their interviews used directly or indirectly, with the latter meaning that their exact quotes would not be used so that their identity would be completely shielded. All interviewees chose to have their information used directly. Pseudonyms were used because of the personal nature of youths’ experiences, their young age at the time of the interview, and the fact that many were in crisis at the time and may not have been in a position to adequately analyze the consequences of revealing private information to a wide audience. Some interviewees chose their own pseudonyms; for others, the researcher chose a pseudonym. In some cases, in addition to the use of pseudonyms, other identifying factors such as gender, geography, age, the existence of children, siblings or the specific facts of an incident are left out in order to further conceal the individual’s identity. This was done when the facts of a situation were particularly personal or potentially endangering. For example, particular care has been taken to shield the identity of an interviewee who described having been raped as a child.

Four Indicators of Minimal Readiness for Independence

While the interviews were generally narrative in nature, the researcher asked four specific questions of each individual. These questions were chosen as indicators of the most minimal preparation for adulthood and readiness for independence. The four questions were:

  • When you left foster care did you have a source of income?
  • When you left foster care did you have medical coverage?
  • When you left foster care did you have a high school diploma?
  • When you left foster care did you have an adult you could turn to if you were in some kind of crisis, for example, needing a ride to the doctor if you were very sick?

All interviews were deeply personal. Interviewees were asked to talk about experiences of trauma, betrayal, and abandonment by family and the system. The fact of their homelessness was an obvious source of shame for many, and some even blamed themselves for being in foster care, such as, “I was a stubborn child, that’s why no one wanted me.”

Many interviewees expressed that even though the topics were difficult to discuss, they wanted to talk about their experiences because they wanted to help change things for children who come up in the system after them. Mason B. put it this way: “I’m down for any cause to help improve things. Even if I’m not going to see help for me, maybe it will help others coming along.”[192]


[191] The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §11431 et seq., reauthorized January 2002.

[192] Human Rights Watch interview with Mason B., age 24, Hollywood, May 22, 2006.