Moving out at 18 and then dealing with life by yourself? New project examines the importance of family for care leavers

Care leavers – these are young people who grow up outside the family in child and youth welfare care and who embark on the path to adulthood from there – often experience the transition to independence at the age of 18 as very abrupt. While other young adults can usually count on the support of their family for many years to come, many care leavers often find themselves alone. A research project is investigating the role of the family and social networks in the transition to adulthood. Researchers are currently analysing initial data from the interviews.

In Austria, approximately 13,000 children and adolescents spend periods of time growing up away from their families. 1,000 care leavers leave child and youth welfare facilities every year after turning 18 years of age. “We know from our research that this group is disadvantaged in various ways,” as Stephan Sting, head of the project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, explains, before adding: “You have to understand that care and residence in child and youth welfare institutions often ends abruptly when a person reaches the age of 18. There are cases where these young people have to move out immediately after graduating from high school and are then left more or less on their own.” The present study is dedicated to this transition to independence. “We want to find out what family relationships look like once care ends, who the important social contacts are and what influence family has on the further life paths of care leavers.”

For many care leavers, robust social relationships and support networks are often poorly developed, with the result that the transition can be accompanied by loneliness and feelings of social isolation. These young people usually have a complicated relationship with their parents due to their experiences and life history. “Nevertheless, at this stage of life, the family is partly associated with the hope that relationships might improve. A hope that is not fulfilled in many cases. However, dealing with the family is crucial for the development of ideas about the future and for one’s self-image,” Stephan Sting explains.

The research project, which is run by the Department of Educational Science in Klagenfurt, started in 2022 and is now in the initial data analysis phase. The team has already conducted a number of interviews; now the researchers are starting to analyse the material that has been gathered. It is hoped that the findings will not only lead to new theories, but also to recommendations on the structures that care leavers need in order to have a better chance of making a successful transition into adulthood.

More details are available at (information in German).

Care leavers can apply for a Dr. Erich Ciesciutti scholarship to support their Bachelor’s studies at the University of Klagenfurt. For more information please visit