Dissertations & Theses (Open Access)

Date of Award

Summer 8-2023

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD)


Diane Santa Maria, DrPH

Second Advisor

Cathy Rozmus, PhD

Third Advisor

Sarah Narendorf, PhD


Background: Parent-child separation and custody loss are common among parenting young adults experiencing homelessness (YAEH). These experiences may be traumatic for YAEH, a population already vulnerable to mental health disorders and high levels of trauma. Little is known about how YAEH who have their children with them compare to YAEH separated from their children in terms of mental health and risk and resilience factors. Further evidence is needed to better understand the parenting and mental health support needs among YAEH, particularly surrounding parent-child separation.

Aims: This study aimed to examine the characteristics of (1) parenting YAEH living with their children (n=70) compared to YAEH separated from their children (n=217) and (2) YAEH with a history of pregnancy involvement (n=531) compared to YAEH never involved in a pregnancy (n=768). Additionally, this study aimed to explore the perceptions of YAEH surrounding how mental health affects parenting, to understand experiences of parent-child separation, and to identify needed supports and services.

Methods: A cross-sectional, mixed methods design was used for this study. Data from the Homeless Youth Risk and Resilience Survey, collected from YAEH ages 18-26 across seven US cities, were analyzed to examine differences in demographic characteristics, mental health, and risk indicators between subgroups of YAEH, disaggregated by gender. To enhance the quantitative data, semi-structured interviews, which addressed parenting experiences while homeless and mental health, were conducted with young mothers experiencing homelessness in the Houston area. Thematic content analysis was used to analyze the qualitative data.

Results: Overall, 77% of fathers and 74% of mothers were separated from at least one child at the time of data collection. Mothers separated from their children had lower mean scores for psychological distress compared to mothers not separated from their children (mean score 10 vs 14, t = 2.118, p = .037). Females involved in a pregnancy had lower mean depression scores compared to females with no pregnancy history (mean score 9.8 vs. 11.6, t=2.20, p=.028). Three themes emerged from the qualitative data, which were (1) characteristics of the parent, (2) family social context, and (3) parental functioning and separation experiences.

Conclusion: Study findings indicate important gender differences in the mental health needs of pregnant and parenting YAEH and the complex nature of family separations. Interventions that align with the values and immediate needs of parenting YAEH are needed to support parental mental health and foster family stability.


Homelessness, parenting, young adults, mental health, support, separation

Included in

Nursing Commons



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