Update from Addis Ababa: Experiences of youth aging out of institutionalized care

August 2, 2013

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent over a month in Addis, and that I’ll be leaving in just three short weeks.  I am now able to get around the city confidently and comfortably, I have favorite restaurants and cafés, and I’ve made many friends that I’ll be sad to leave.  Moreover, my work has finally changed from meetings with organizational staff to interviewing young people who grew up in care:  hearing their stories and experiences of transition.  This is the work that I am most interested in, and it will be the basis for IOFA’s decisions moving forward on the Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia.  We want to know what the personal experience of transitioning from care institutions to independence.


Mikiyas and three research participants from Kidane Mehret

So far, Mikiyas Feyissa (IOFA’s Ethiopian representative and translator) and I have conducted four interview sessions, each with adults from different organizations.  We heard from 5 youth from CIAI who spent much of their time on the streets until CIAI’s shelter took them in.  We met with 10 individuals who grew up in L’Esperance:  an Adventist orphanage on the outskirts of Addis.  We talked to 5 adults who grew up in Abebech Gobena (Addis Ababa’s most famous orphanage) and who are now employed by that institution.  We also met 4 girls from Kidane Mehret orphanage, who have just started transitioning to independent life.  Additionally, I have been able to have great, informal conversations with two young men who grew up in care and who are now living independently.

Each individual and group has a unique story, but there are common themes that we hear over and over again.  One challenge that every youth seems to face when they leave care is the extreme culture shock of joining the outside community.  Most orphaned children grow up isolated in institutions with very little community interaction.  Basic social skills that most children pick up through observing adults are completely foreign to orphaned youth.  Tamerat, who now works as a psychologist in a Catholic orphanage, told me that he didn’t know how to buy food or clothes because everything had always been provided in the orphanage.  

“[Orphaned youth] have no budgeting skills and don’t know how to save money.  They also don’t have any role models for working and responsibility.  Other children see their parents go to work every day, [orphaned youth] don’t have that experience.  They don’t know how to manage their time to make sure everything is done.”

Every group has commented on how difficult it is to converse and interact with other people outside of the institution.  The youth feel that the community will ostracize them, which leads them to be very reserved; most Ethiopians generally do not trust reserved people, so they treat the youth as though they were of bad character.  This confirms the youth’s fears and leads to further psychological distress.  The youth also have no sense of “good” and “bad” behavior in other people; they are often easily trusting of strangers.  Because their only interactions with adults have been in the orphanage, the youth often do not possess the healthy dose of suspicion that most of us employ when meeting new people, looking for a job, and searching for housing.

“Children who grew up in this orphanage have similar thinking and conduct. We respect people and we do not pretend like people do in the society. If we trust others; we give ourselves.  On the other hand members of the society do not give themselves, they rather are selfish.”


Focus group participants at L’Esperance orphanage answering yes/no questions by making either an “n” or a “y” shape with their bodies

We are also hearing that although institutions often assist the youth in pursuing some sort of education or vocational training, the support stops as soon as they graduate.  In Ethiopia, the biggest challenge for young people is finding employment.  While young people with family support often have the option of staying with their parents while looking for a good job, orphaned youth must enter the job market immediately so that they can support themselves.  Families also function as a job search and referral system in a place where social connections are the key to getting a good job.  This lack of material and social support leads orphaned youth to take jobs that they are over-qualified for, jobs with low wages and little opportunity of advancement.

“We suffer long periods of time without any finances…Students who graduated with fewer qualifications and lower grades secure better employment.  We graduate with honors and do not get a job at all.  You can only explain this by people having contacts: relatives, families, etc., and we do not have that.”

For many of the participants in these interviews, telling their stories can be cathartic.  The four girls that Mikiyas and I interviewed at Kidane Mehret orphanage were disappointed that we would not be meeting again.  This was the first time anyone had asked them about their experience or showed an interest in how the transition was affecting them emotionally.  The group from L’Esperance meets weekly for fellowship.  They said that they discuss the challenges they face and lean on each other for support. 

I am glad that IOFA’s interview process gives some of these youth the opportunity to process and reflect on their experience, as well as assurance that people do care about them and want to make the experience better for youth aging out of care.

Sarah Lyn Jones,
Transitions Initiative Intern


Recommendations: Cook County DCFS youth recount their experiences with a job training program

Last week’s blog post reported the reflections of DCFS foster youth participants in a job training program, as noted through Chapin Hall focus groups. The Cook County-based program seeks to provide four weeks of training before two months of subsidized work placements, yet the participants’ feedback has been disappointing. How can programs like the Cook County one be improved?


Increased organization and individualized care

One of the most widespread complaints among the DCFS ward participants was the perceived disorganization of the program. One suggestion that Chapin Hall makes is to train DCFS wards separately from other populations for more specialized and individualized attention and training.

The needs of the DCFS ward participants are often starkly different from some of the populations with whom they have been trained (ex-convict adults, for example). The training program is often the first preparation for professionalism that the young participants have ever received. Using age-specific material and encouraging an environment of equality of status and priority could improve the effectiveness of the program for DCFS ward participants.

The smaller training class size would also encourage engagement in the program and give participants the opportunity to ask their questions and receive more individualized support.

Interactive Skill-building activities

Another complaint of the program participants was the worksheet-style training. The DCFS youth preferred a more hands-on approach, citing an interactive “Pretend Town” activity as the most useful part of the training as a whole. Other concrete examples that the participants mentioned included mock interviews, CPR training, and opportunities “where you practice”. Hands-on learning experiences help participants feel that their time is being valued and prepare them for real-world experience.

A more interactive approach also would better equip the young participants to handle unforeseen challenges in the workplace. Preparation for conflict management, emergency response, and other opportunities to think on their feet would help create appropriate response patterns to these situations.

Curriculum for keeping the job, not just landing it

DCFS ward participants expressed frustration over the program’s curriculum, which sought to equip them to write resumes, speak in interviews, and dress for success. Once participants had landed the job, however, participants felt that the skills required of them for continued success, both job-specific and general professionalism, were lacking.

A curriculum including more extensive job-specific training, while necessitating more specialization, could improve the value participants place on the training, their confidence upon entrée into the job, and their performance in their position. Approaching the program with a focus on long-term results (success in job placement) rather than the short-term goal (the initial placement) could increase the participants’ chances of success and satisfaction upon employment, ultimately fulfilling the vision of the program 

Put job placement options in a realistic, positive perspective

Many participants expressed disappointment in the discord between their career interests and their job placements. Clear communication of the existing job placement options and the viability of placement in their fields of interests could improve the participants’ emotional reactions to receiving their placement.

I would also suggest creating a “game plan” of how youth can work their way into their field of interest, even if their initial placement is not going to reflect their preferences. For example, focusing on the skill sets that will be honed in a daycare center that can be applied to a future restaurant host/hostess position could help change participants’ outlook and increase incentive to stay engaged in their placement.

Provide orientation for subsidized job placement staff prior to DCFS ward employment

One of the most disconcerting responses of the participants in the job placement program was feeling used for cheap labor. Rather than perceiving potential for a long-term relationship with their supervisors, the youth express feeling taken advantage of and doubt about employers’ intentions to keep them on as staff.

While the program is a professional partnership between the job placement sites and the program facilitators, a participant-centered approach is critical to beginning those relationships. In the same way that an unpaid intern is paid in practical on-site experience, the subsidized job placements should reflect compensation in experience and professional relationships for the DCFS ward participants.

An orientation session for the employers stressing the factors and goals of the DCFS ward participants could improve respect and understanding between employer and employee and better prepare employers to make the placement an enriching and mutually beneficial experience.

Train staff to treat DCFS ward participants with respect

 Participants often described feeling treated like “little kids” by the program staff. They perceive stigmatization regarding their DCFS ward status and by their age in comparison to some of the adult clientele that the program aids in job placements.

Just as an orientation session would help relationships between the job placement employers and DCFS ward participants, more extensive training for program staff could improve relationships between the program staff and the DCFS ward participants. Those responsible for training participants ought to be training by example – exercising professionalism, respect and compassion in the program.

While these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, they provide a good launch pad for resourcing youth aging out of alternative care.

 A job placement program can open new doors for vulnerable youth who must secure provision and protection in new ways when they are no longer under the care of the State. Stable employment must be made a priority as it can serve as an alternative to the harmful, yet alluring provision of gang membership, theft, or trusting false promises of protection.

These needs are mirrored across the globe. While this Chapin Hall study focuses on a job placement program here in Cook County, similar studies in other nations could help us tackle the global vulnerabilities of youth aging out of care. The Transitions Initiative seeks to do just that. Keep an eye on IOFA intern Sarah’s updates from Addis Ababa, where she is researching the experiences of youth aging out of care there.


 A sincere thank-you to Amy Dworsky and Judy Havlicek at Chapin Hall – University of Chicago for their research and shared results.

Dworsky, A. & Havlicek, J. (2010). Experiences of Foster Youth in an Employment Training and Job Placement Program. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of ChicagoPhoto: http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/graduate/placement.html


Alexa Schnieders

Program Development Intern

Welcome to Addis Ababa, Sarah!

July 4, 2013


After finishing my undergraduate degree, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in South India, teaching girls and young women conversational English and volunteering at different women’s organizations.  It was there that I fell in love with youth-centered service work, and am now pursuing my Masters in Social Work at the University of Chicago, focusing on international social work.  After graduating, I hope to find work with an internationally-focused organization that invests in, supports, and empowers vulnerable youth and young adults around the world. 

I am excited to start my work as the Transitions Initiative Intern with IOFA!  This summer, I will be in Addis Ababa doing research on the experience of adolescents who have left institutional care (orphanages, group homes, etc.) to make their own way in the world.  Youth and young adults who lack the support of family networks face severe challenges in transitioning to adulthood, and are much more vulnerable to the problems of exploitation, poverty, and violence.  Throughout the next two months, I will be working with local organizations to identify and interview individuals who grew up without traditional family support and record their transition stories.

I have been in Addis for only 10 days, but am already falling in love with the city and its people.  As I meet with organizational directors, humanitarian workers, and children at group homes/orphanages, I am learning much about the needs of these youth and am energized and inspired to continue the amazing work that IOFA does with the Transitions Initiative. 

Sarah Lyn Jones

Transitions Initiative Intern