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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney

The Challenges They Face

As noted, one reason to pay closer attention to these vulnerable populations is that the lengthening transition to adulthood poses an even greater challenge for them than for other youth. Some of these vulnerable youth must accomplish tasks that other youth do not face. Whereas most young people begin the transition to adulthood from the security of their family's home, runaway and homeless youth and youth leaving foster care may have to find their own housing. Youth entangled with the juvenile or adult justice system may have to pay restitution or follow rules of probation or parole that restrict their activities. Physically disabled youth often must arrange medical services or assistive devices. Taking on these extra burdens makes it that much more difficult to get a college education or develop a strong romantic relationship that may lead to marriage.

Some of these populations have only limited ability to perform everyday tasks. Those with physical disabilities, for example, may have reduced strength and range of movement; youth in special education may have learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. Such limitations could preclude certain occupations or even rule out independent living without special assistance. Young adults with mental illness and behavioral problems could find it hard to meet the expectations of employers, friends, or romantic partners.

Deficiencies in family support—a common challenge for most of these vulnerable populations—are increasingly significant in the context of the lengthening transition to adulthood. Youth in the general population typically receive valuable support from their families, and even when they do not, they know it would be forthcoming were a special need to arise. Family financial support—in the form, say, of funding for a college education—is essential to the ability of middle-class families to put their children on a professional career track. Vulnerable youth often have poor relationships with their families, who themselves have limited economic resources. Youth in the juvenile justice system and in special education often come from poor, single-parent families.6 Most problematic of course, are the limited (even absent) or negative relations with family commonly experienced by runaway and homeless youth and youth who have been living in foster care. The difficulty is not always a family's lack of motivation. In many cases parents and extended family of these youth strive to be supportive, but the cumulative demands of the long journey through childhood can sap parents' ability to take on the burdens of a longer transition to adulthood.