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M MitchellIf there’s one thing that the South Carolina National Youth in Transition Database (SC NYTD) research team is passionate about, it’s empowering youth in foster care. According to Dr. Monique Mitchell, SC NYTD Research Director, that passion can be found in their mottos: “Staying connected” and “More than a data collection.”

“We want our youth to know that they are not numbers crunched in our system,” Dr. Mitchell said. According to her, including youth voices is key to transforming the systems that are designed to help them. One way that she and her team of researchers and graduate students at the Center for Child and Family Studies have done this is by expanding NYTD’s scope in South Carolina.

NYTD is a federal data collection that evaluates the Chafee Independent Living Program and is required in every state. Most states tend to provide youth with a standard set of closed-ended questions. However, in South Carolina, the Department of Social Services (DSS) has partnered with the University of South Carolina to transform a standard program evaluation into a longitudinal research study called “Voices and Visions of Youth in Transition.” The SC NYTD team still gathers the necessary data, but they also ask open-ended questions, giving youth ages 17 to 21 the opportunity to tell their stories and share their experiences, difficulties, and dreams.

Ms. Louisa Vann, SC NYTD Research Associate, works closely with the youth, locating them, inviting them to take the survey, and administering the survey via phone. “That’s what’s really great about this initiative—asking young people what they’re experiencing,” she said. “I think it’s empowering for them to share their voice and know that their voice actually matters.”

The study will consist of five years of data collection for each cohort of youth, who will be interviewed at ages 17, 19, and 21. Surveying began with the first cohort in 2010 with almost 300 participants, and the data collection will include at least three cohorts of youth.

While the amount of data gathered may seem overwhelming, the team is using their research for advocacy purposes.

“Youth face a lot of challenges. They’re expected to go out at 18, they often can’t go back to their families of origin, they change schools frequently,” said Ms. Toni Jones, SC NYTD Project Coordinator and SC NYTD Youth Voice Co-Facilitator. She explained that one of the original purposes of the study is to “figure out how we can support youth and give them the best opportunity to have successful lives as adults.”

As Dr. Mitchell noted, “Youth are so sick and tired of hearing the negative outcomes” associated with aging out of care. “We give them the opportunity to tell us the good, too,” she said. And when she and her team ask youth about their goals, “the youth know their dreams matter too.”

Part of SC NYTD’s work is to help youth achieve those dreams by providing them with the resources and connections they need to succeed. For example, while the researchers only survey a select population of youth, the SC NYTD website serves all young people in foster care—including a “tips and tricks” section to help youth with job applications, scholarship searches, and housing. Further, through leadership programs like the SC NYTD Youth Advisory Panel, youth in foster care have input on the project itself and develop permanent connections that Ms. Jones said make the advisory panel “like a family.”

The SC NYTD team loves the individual impact their work has on participants, and they hope that their research will have a broader influence as well. “I hope that other agencies and youth are able to hear what the youth have to say, and that it ultimately shapes policy at the national and state level,” Ms. Vann said.

It’s also obvious that the youth have had a transformative effect on the team members themselves.

“I’m blown away by how much the youth share with me,” Ms. Vann said, citing both their openness to the survey and the connections they form with her. For example, it’s not unusual for the youth she’s surveyed to call and wish her happy holidays or share a piece of good news. “The majority of us haven’t met face to face, but we have this relationship.”

For Dr. Mitchell, the SC NYTD Project is an opportunity to give back. “I transitioned out of care, and I know personally the struggles they’re dealing with,” she said. “I want youth to know that they’re not alone, that someone cares about their well-being.”

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