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New report from USM’s Cutler Institute shares the stories of Maine’s system-involved young people

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The journeys of young people through systems like the child welfare and youth justice system — and how they feel about their care — is the subject of a new report released by the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute.

The 34-page report, “Transitioning From Youth to Adulthood: Mapping the Impact of Systems and Places on Youth Pathways,” collected stories from 35 young people, age 14 to 24, who experienced homelessness, educational pushout, child-welfare and youth justice involvement, or interaction with the mental or behavioral healthcare system. 

While many expressed a need for supports, researchers found a sense of hope and a desire to change circumstances. Some of the young people expressed a desire to return home to their families, a wish to go to college, or a newfound sense of identity and belonging that has had a positive impact on their well-being.

The report is the latest report to be released by the Place Matters project, which is housed at the Cutler Institute at the Muskie School of Public Service, located at the University of Southern Maine.  The report was authored by Danielle Layton, Erica King, Jillian Foley, and Sophia McMullan of the Justice Policy Program within USM’s Cutler Institute.

Using arts-based methods — enabling participants to express themselves in non-verbal ways — the researchers were able to gain deep insights into the lives of some of Maine’s most vulnerable young people.

“These are the stories behind a lot of the data that the Place Matters team has shared in the past,” Foley said. “By sharing the stories of these young people, we are hoping to show how public serving systems are impacting young people’s lives as they transition to adulthood.”

Several student researchers involved with the report had experience with child serving systems themselves, including McMullan. “These kids who I met with for this research already have more life experience than a lot of adults and they too easily fall through the cracks,” McMullan said. “It’s up to us to hear their experiences and shine light on the issues they raised.”

The report recommends creating more opportunities for young people to be involved with decisions made by the organizations and systems that serve them, as well as investments in the continuum of care, and programs and policies that promote belonging and equity.

“At the heart of this report are the narratives of young people whose childhoods’ have been impacted by poverty, family separation, challenges with school, and access to health care, alongside discrimination and othering.” King said. “The maps and images young people bravely shared, mirror the adverse childhood and community experiences that we know are determinants of social and economic wellbeing. Centering youth voices and expertise can only improve the opportunity landscape that leads to better safety and belonging for all Maine communities.”