Master of Fine Arts
Many of us think about foster care in the context of younger children removed from home. However, little thought is given to youth that age out of the foster care system and the associated challenges and risks they face, namely in the area of housing.
Youth in foster care often receive minimal support in making the transition to independence and are frequently forced into instant adulthood. They are faced with an abrupt end of support at a time when they have not yet mastered the educational, social, or economic survival skills necessary to be independent in the community (Haas, Allen, Amoah, 2014).
Additionally, youth lose the formal support of the child welfare system when transitioning from out-of-home care to adulthood, contributing to difficulties finding safe and affordable housing (Daining & DePanfilis, 2007).
Youth who transitioned from out-of-home care are at great risk of serious negative outcomes, including underemployment, low educational attainment, homelessness, early parenthood, criminal activity and mental health problems such as depression and psychological distress (Daining & DePanfilis, 2007).
These risks are exacerbated if youth exit care prior to age 19. In the United States, roughly 20,000 youth are emancipated from foster care annually and are not reunited with families (Kushel, Yen, Gee, & Courtney, 2007).
Strong social support is essential for youth transitioning out of the foster care system; yet many find that these needs are unmet at the time of their exit from care (Nesmith & Christophersen, 2014).
Interior design has the opportunity to establish a model for Independent Living facilities based on the needs of emancipated foster youth, and to do so in a way that inspires a sense of community, connectedness, and family, setting foster youth up for a successful transition into adulthood.
Research reveals scant information about the design of these types of facilities, in particular those designed for youth aging out of care.
In order to fill in the gaps on this design issue and establish criteria for this type of facility, interviews have been conducted with a foster youth currently residing in an Independent Living program, as well as a current foster parent and a social case worker.
Conversations have also taken place with Fostering Acadia, the largest Independent Living Facility in Virginia, revealing the importance of personalization of residences.
Shopworks Architects has been interviewed to establish knowledge on trauma-informed design principles, as many foster youth are managing depression and anxiety due to their history of housing instability and other negative life experiences.
Shopworks Architects’ Laurel House project in Grand Junction, CO, as well as David Baker Architects’ Bayview Hill Gardens project in San Francisco are two precedents that have been studied to understand housing for both teenagers and the formerly homeless.
Dr. Rachel Rosenberg, Child Welfare Research Scientist at Child Trends, the nation’s leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives of children and youth, has been interviewed due to her expertise on the specific issue of youth aging out of foster care.
Research indicates preparation for self sufficiency is enhanced by the provision of several supports. These services include job readiness, educational support and tutoring, time and money management skills, career pathway exploration, access to community resources, parenting education and skills development, and education about sexual health and family planning (Daining & DePanfilis, 2007). Mental health resources are also of significant priority for foster youth.
As the planned programming of an Independent Living facility aims to meet these needs for youths’ successful transition, it should do so with trauma-informed design in mind.
Trauma-informed design is defined as creating uniquely-designed space where all users feel a sense of safety, respect, connection and community, control, dignity, and joy (Shopworks Architecture, 2020, p. 4).
There are over 5,500 children in foster care in Virginia, over half of which are ten years and older. Virginia is currently ranked 50th in the nation for the worst discharge from foster care (Foster VA, 2020).
The design of an interior centered on temporary independent living, financial literacy education, career and college application counseling, mentorship and transportation access might aid in the successful transition of older foster youth.
The facility will be designed in a 14,000 sq ft multi-story building in a mid-Atlantic city of 50,000. Programming will focus on temporary 1-3 year placements for 18–21-year-old foster youth.
Ideally, the proposed Independent Living facility would serve as vehicle for emancipated foster youths’ transition to adulthood, as well as a means to re-frame youths’ idea of home and promote healing.
To achieve these goals, this model would work to balance several dichotomies through design and programming, namely choice versus dictation, privacy versus supervision, support versus independence, and personalization versus pervasiveness.
© Kristy McDaniel Leitzel
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